In this contribution, Emma J. McAlister reflects on the heritage making processes taking place in a hidden-church museum in the historic heart of Amsterdam.
Carol Duncan’s seminal publication Civilizing Rituals has greatly influenced my doctoral research as I examine how museum spaces influence visitor behaviour and their perception of religious objects displayed there. For this piece, I am using one of my thesis case studies which analyses ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ Museum, a former hidden Catholic Church in Amsterdam. Using evidence obtained from the museum’s documents regarding the building’s condition (which led to renovations and a new visitor centre) and participant observation, I will argue that the visitors’ performance in the hidden church reinforces intangible ideas about the value and aura of heritage.
‘Our Lord in the Attic’ is a museum located in Amsterdam’s red-light district. The historic house consists of three canal houses purchased by German merchant Jan Hardman in 1661 and was made into one site concealing the attic church by 1663. Formally known as St Nichola’s Church, the museum was a hidden church for clandestine Catholics until 1887, when publicly practising Catholicism was forbidden in Amsterdam. In 1887 the St Nichola’s Catholic Basilica was erected in the city centre, close to ‘Our Lord in the Attic’.
No longer needed, the hidden church was immediately due for demolition, but in 1888 it was saved by a Catholic heritage society called Amstelkring. From that period onwards, the building has been open to visitors as a museum.
The combination of the church’s 360 year survival and the turbulent history it has lived through make visiting this museum a special and unique experience. A new visitor centre opened to the public on the 23rd September 2015 to manage visitor numbers inside the church space at any one time due to the threat of inadvertent damage to the fragile museum space (Versloot, 2010; About the Museum, 2020). It acts as ‘living history monument’ which is enjoyed (in pre-pandemic times) by over 100,000 visitors a year (About the museum, 2020).
Modulating Visitor Behaviour
In 2002, the museum staff and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage conducted a risk assessment to investigate how to preserve the site, including what contaminants would endanger its structural integrity. The risk assessment found that visitors posed a considerable threat of damage to the museum’s fragile staircases. With this knowledge, further deterioration needed to be limited while still allowing visitors access to the church via a staircase. Consequently, the museum staff have extended their preservation rules beyond their conservation team to include every staff member and their visitors.
The staff at ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ are creative in how they instruct visitors to adapt their behaviour to the site, ensuring that the instructions are easy to follow and that they add positively to an entertaining visitor experience. Inside the museum, rules are given by barriers, audio guides and signage. These visitor instructions include behaviours expected within a purpose-built museum, namely behaving with ‘decorum’; however, in the museum’s fragile site, visitors have to adapt to the specific protocols needed to protect it (Duncan, 1995, p. 5).
Fortunately for the museum, visitors consciously adapting their behaviour seems to add positively to how visitors experience the site. A visitor I interviewed stated enthusiastically that their favourite part of their visit was ‘how visitors move through the museum’ (Visitor Interview. 12/7/2018). Curator Thijs Boers stated that ‘climbing and descending the steep stairs and hearing the creaking of the wood is considered essential to the visitors’ experience’ (Boers, no date). In other words, the museum staffs’ intention is to create a ‘heritage experience’. They achieve that by making visitors aware of the site’s fragility by highlighting its age and, therefore, its authenticity and value. (Versloot, 2010, p. 21).
The Visitor Experience
When a visitor arrives, they pay an entry fee (€14) at the reception and they are given a locker to put their belongings into as the museum staff are cautious of any preventable damage caused by large bags to the church. An audio guide acts as a tour guide, directing visitors through the building by scanning different information points of the visitor centre and the museum. The heritage performance begins in the visitor centre, where visitors are encouraged to watch a video explaining the history of hidden churches in Amsterdam and the house itself. The visitor then leaves the modern centre and enters the historic site through an underground passage. There is a bold juxtaposition between the high tech visitor centre and entering the historic site, which the curators describe as taking a ‘trip through time’ (Vershoor and Franken, 2016). Inside the historic space, there are three large boxes of shoe covers which visitors must pull over their shoes before climbing stairs and entering the rooms to protect the original flooring. The shoe coverings reemphasize to the visitor that they must be extra careful when inhabiting the historic space, making them active participants in heritage making (Plate, 2004, p. 5).
The museum audio tour consists of first exploring a reconstruction of Jan Hartman’s house before climbing a flight of narrow stairs to the church in the attic. Within the splendour of the pink church, visitors are reminded again by the audio guide to tread carefully and respect the objects on display.
The audio guide draws visitors’ attention to specific objects or decor for their historical and cultural significance, explaining how some of them were recreated through illustrations of similar houses from the seventeenth – nineteenth centuries and written documents from Dutch and German archives (Versloot, 2010, p. 16). Through these visual points of reference, the audio guide describes the congregation that secretly attended the church and the restoration process of the church and its objects. Some stations persuade visitors to look out of a window on to the street where they can see the contrasting twenty-first-century red-light district with its flashy neon lights and hordes of tourists. These continual anachronisms underscore the nostalgic escapism of stepping back in time into a ‘living history’ museum (Versloot, 2010, p. 15).
Staging a Heritage Site
Through the museum’s antiqued space and embodied visitor participation, the site successfully presents the hallmarks of authenticity to its visitors (Hunt, 2004, p. 389). To accentuate the site’s old age, the museum staff consciously created a multisensory site with faded fabrics, musky smells, and the sound of creaking floorboards. Additionally, the museum staff are not meticulous when it comes to dusting, as research from the National Trust found that a bit of dust adds to the visitor experience of a historical site (Versloot, 2010, p. 21). In other words, ensuring that the space and its objects appear antiqued helps to persuade visitors of the site’s authenticity.
I believe that the museum staff have created a successful immersive multisensory site where visitors examine aged artefacts, feel the creaking floor broads beneath their feet and inhale the historical dustiness. However, the most moving moment when visiting the museum was the feeling of re-enacting the parishioners’ footsteps to the hidden church. Not only did I feel like I was having a physical encounter with the past, but I also felt empathy with the congregation who had to secretly practice their faith there. How visitors move cautiously in the historical parts of the museum, to my mind, replicates how the faithful may have tip-toed softly in that same space. As a result, the museum comes to life as an authentic historical site for visitors because of their considered behaviour or heritage ritual.
The museum causes visitors to be acutely aware that they are stepping into a historic site of importance. The extra layer of cautiousness when visiting a site like ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ adds to the behaviour expected in purpose-built museums, described in Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals. Visitors to ‘Our Lord in the Attic’ are inside the museum’s most treasured object, the hidden church, and, therefore, are instructed to control their behaviour to protect the site. The church’s parishioners would have had reverence for the sacred church, and now the visitors’ considered performances bestow the same respect to the building in honour of its historical value. Through the visitors’ heritage performance, the building’s historic nature feels tangible. The controlled ritual elicits a sense of wonder and awe, imbuing the building with priceless value related to its unique historical status.
Emma J. McAlister is a PhD Candidate in Museum Studies and Public History at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research examines the complexities surrounding displaying religious objects in museum spaces. Emma’s broader interests include art history, exhibition design and anthropology. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies and a BA in Modern History.
Find her on Twitter: @emmajmca
About the museum (2020) Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder. Available at: https://www.opsolder.nl/en/about/about-museum (Accessed: 2 June 2020).
Duncan, C. (1995) Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. Oxon, New York: Routledge.
Hunt, S. J. (2004) ‘Acting the part: “Living history” as a serious leisure pursuit’, Leisure Studies, 23(4), pp. 387–403. doi: 10.1080/0261436042000231664.
Plate, S. B. (2004) Walter Benjamin, Religion and Aesthetics. New York, London: Routledge.
Vershoor, G. and Franken, M. (2016) Curator’s Collection: The building as a museum object: Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, Codart Ezine. Available at: https://ezine.codart.nl/17/issue/57/artikel/the-building-as-a-museum-object-museum-ons-lieve-heer-op-solder/?id=347#!/page/1 (Accessed: 22 June 2020).
Versloot, A. (2010) Our Lord in the Attic: Risk Report. Amsterdam.