The History of Eye Filmmuseum

Not every visitor to the architectural gem that is Eye Filmmuseum will know that the museum started out seventy-five years ago, in one tiny room. A tour of the exciting and turbulent history of the institution in its anniversary year.

Eye Filmmuseum seen across the river IJ © Marcus Koppen
Eye Filmmuseum, © Marcus Koppen

Fairground attraction

Prior to World War II, conservation was an unknown term in the film world. Film was a disposable commodity. Once the audience had tired of a film, it would be destroyed. No one hankered after old films, it was all about the new ones. Film was seen as a kind of fairground attraction, fleeting entertainment. The realisation that films are part of our cultural heritage was completely lacking not only in the Netherlands, but in the film world internationally. An attitude that didn’t change until the 1930s. Gradually, the insight dawned that films have a cultural value and so it is important to preserve them. A film museum was set up in Paris in 1936 (La Cinémathèque française), followed two years later by the Belgian Cinematek in Brussels.

Cinémathèque française
Cinémathèque française
Cinematek Brussel
Cinematek Brussel

Film collection

Shortly after World War II, the Netherlands also got its film museum. In 1946 former resistance fighter Piet Meerburg, who after the war founded Amsterdam student cinema Kriterion, along with film producer and distributor Paul Kijzer, set up the Nederlands Historisch Film Archief (Netherlands Historical Film Archive, NHFA) with David van Staveren, the former chair of the Filmkeuring (the Dutch motion picture content rating system at the time).

Piet Meerburg
Piet Meerburg
David van Staveren
David van Staveren

Their aim was to collect films of artistic value. No attention was (yet) paid to ‘ordinary’ entertainment films; they did not consider such films to be worthy of preservation. The day-to-day management of the archive was in the hands of secretary, and from 1948 director, fanatical film collector Jan de Vaal. The film archive rented a room on P.C. Hooftstraat in Amsterdam. A year later, Meerburg made a small space (‘the broom cupboard’) in Kriterion available for the collection.

Kriterion exterior, date unknown
Kriterion, date unknown

Long March

From this ‘broom cupboard’, De Vaal set off on a long march through the institutions and government bodies with the intention of obtaining a serious place within the Dutch cultural landscape for the Nederlands Historisch Film Archief. This is a tragicomic story of small steps forwards and back, and many frustrations at the lack of a suitable home. De Vaal focused on building the collection. He collected avant-garde films from the 1920s and ’30s, including the films screened by the Nederlandsche Filmliga (Dutch Film League, 1927-1932), but also obtained films from major European and Hollywood directors such as Max Ophüls, D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau. He also recognised the importance of preserving Nazi propaganda films such as Jud Süβ (1940) and Der ewige Jude (1940).

De Vaal’s priorities were collecting and conservation. Unlike Henri Langlois for example, his flamboyant film-loving colleague at the Cinémathèque in Paris, he considered screening these film treasures to be of secondary importance.

Stedelijk Museum

Six years after its foundation, De Vaal made a great leap forward with the film archive. Willem Sandberg, visionary director of Amsterdam’s modern art and design museum the Stedelijk Museum, considered that, as the youngest art form, film belonged in modern art museums. He offered accommodation to the Nederlands Historisch Film Archief, as well as screening facilities in the Stedelijk Museum. From this moment on, the Nederlands Historisch Film Archief was renamed the Nederlands Filmmuseum and screened films in the Stedelijk Museum’s auditorium. These screenings, consisting of both classics and works from new cinematic movements, were a huge success, as were the themed programmes such as De bevrijdende lach (Liberating Laughter) and Film klaagt aan (Film Accuses). At the end of the 1950s, these screenings were attracting annual audiences of around 10,000 people.

Jean Desmet
Jean Desmet

In the meantime, De Vaal carried on collecting. In 1957, he obtained the unique archive of Jean Desmet, a pioneering film entrepreneur who, unlike his contemporaries, had kept his films. With the Desmet collection, in one fell swoop, the Filmmuseum had 900 films covering the period 1907-1916. Including many unique copies, found nowhere else in the world.

Read more on Desmet

By 1961, the few hundred films the Filmmuseum owned upon its foundation in 1946 had become a collection of 30,000(!) films, both short and feature-length. The collection of books and posters also grew enormously during this period. The film collection, including many highly flammable nitrate films, was no longer housed in the Stedelijk Museum, but in (fireproofed) bunkers in Castricum and Overveen, among other locations.

Nitrate bunker in Overveen
Nitrate bunker in Overveen © Beelden voor de Toekomst

Vondelparkpaviljoen

The Filmmuseum needed more space, but the Stedelijk Museum had none available. There was an urgent need for a dedicated location, but neither the national government nor the City of Amsterdam saw this as a priority. De Vaal spent years banging his head against a wall, but then in 1972 there was a breakthrough when the Filmmuseum moved into the spacious Vondelparkpaviljoen villa. Alongside office space, a screening room and library were built in this stunning building. The large collection of film posters was also stored here. Soon, however, a lack of space began to be felt, even at this location. And that wasn’t the only problem. There was a lack of funds for conservation of the film collection. De Vaal went cap-in-hand to several government bodies for more financial support, but none was forthcoming.

The Filmmuseum in the Vondelpark
The Filmmuseum in the Vondelpark

With no more than three screenings a week, things were quiet at the Filmmuseum. This led to a lot of criticism. The Filmmuseum was seen by the general public as an insular bastion. In 1986, a ministerial inquiry concluded that the Filmmuseum had to open up. The film treasures should not only be kept, but also made available to the public. After almost forty years, De Vaal said farewell to the Filmmuseum. Leaving behind an incredible legacy of films, posters, books and photos. Just how unique this collection is only became clear in subsequent years when financial resources were finally made available for inventory and conservation.

Golden years

Following De Vaal’s departure, deputy director Frans Maks took on the mantle of interim chief. He was succeeded a year later by Hoos Blotkamp, a former top civil servant who knew the political world like the back of her hand. As a former curator at Centraal Museum Utrecht, she was also extremely familiar with the cultural world and its workings. Blotkamp’s appointment as director, with author and filmmaker Eric de Kuyper as her deputy, marked the beginning of an exciting new era. Blotkamp attracted sizeable subsidies for film conservation and restoration, while De Kuyper presented the film treasures through stimulating programmes. Many of these dealt with silent film and attracted international attention, looking at film history from unexpected perspectives.

Taking over from De Kuyper from 1993, Peter Delpeut and Ruud Visschedijk continued on this refreshing new course. Under the title Bits & Pieces, Delpeut presented programmes made up of unknown film fragments, of which there are many thousands in the Filmmuseum’s collection. These ‘orphaned snippets’ intrigued and stimulated audiences’ imaginations. As did Delpeut’s found footage films Lyrical Nitrate (1991) and The Forbidden Quest (1993). This creative, inventive approach to the film past brought the Filmmuseum international prestige and a reputation for innovation.

It was during this period that the first large-scale digitization operation started: between 1997 and 1999, thousands of films were scanned and provided with identifying data and keywords. This was the launchpad for the huge project Beelden voor de Toekomst (Images of the Future), which between 2007 and 2014 enabled four big audio-visual institutions – including the Filmmuseum – to digitize and preserve their collections.

These were golden years for the Filmmuseum, but one problem remained unresolved: accommodation. A thorough renovation of the Vondelparkpaviljoen in 1990-1991 – including the creation of a second cinema with a stunning Art Deco interior from Jean Desmet’s legendary Cinema Parisien – proved insufficient to cater for the institution’s needs.

Battle of the cities

Struggles to find suitable accommodation form a dramatic common thread running through the history of the Filmmuseum. Just like De Vaal feeling constrained in the Stedelijk Museum, Blotkamp felt hemmed in in the Vondelparkpaviljoen. As the building was too small to accommodate the more than one hundred (part-time) employees, extra office space always had to be rented. Counting the film storage depots, the Filmmuseum was spread across a total of thirteen locations. Years of urgent appeals to the City of Amsterdam authorities had little effect. In 1998, sick of the City’s prevarication, Blotkamp took a drastic decision. She accepted an offer from the City of Rotterdam to house the Filmmuseum in a large vacant warehouse building on Rotterdam’s old docklands peninsula, the Kop van Zuid. According to Blotkamp, this relocation would resolve all the accommodation problems – however, the director also had other concrete proposals. For example, that the Filmmuseum could merge with the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Netherlands Photography Museum) in Rotterdam to form a single, large ‘visual institute’ which fitted Blotkamp’s vision of modern insights into the relationship between film and other forms of visual expression. If the move were to go ahead, the Vondelparkpaviljoen would then serve only as a screening location.

New building

This proposal shook the authorities in Amsterdam into action, as they were horrified by Blotkamp’s plan and suddenly committed everything they had to keeping the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. Blotkamp herself became a victim of the ensuing political battle, losing her position as director in 2000. It was left to her successor, Rien Hagen – documentary maker and former director of The Hague’s arthouse cinema Filmhuis Den Haag – to find new premises in Amsterdam, assisted by Rieks Hadders as deputy director. The City authorities supported their plan for a new purpose-built Filmmuseum on the north bank of the River IJ, directly behind Amsterdam’s Central Station.

Austrian firm of architects Delugan-Meissl came up with a design for a spectacular, futuristic building reminiscent of space ships in science fiction films.

Drone shot of Eye Filmmuseum and the IJ
© Iwan Baan

Spectacular architecture

Rien Hagen didn’t want to oversee a large-scale construction project and left in 2007 as preparations for building work on the new Filmmuseum – to be called Eye Filmmuseum – started. He was succeeded by Sandra den Hamer, former head of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). The first pile for the new building was driven in the autumn of 2009. Two years later, Jaap Guldemond – former curator at the Van Abbemuseum and Museum Boymans van Beuningen – was appointed Director of Exhibitions. He announced that he did not envisage traditional film exhibitions, but rather exhibitions dealing with the medium of film. Exhibitions that invite us to reflect on the possibilities of the medium.

In the spring of 2012, two and a half years after that first pile was driven, Queen Beatrix opened the new building. Its spectacular architecture attracted attention from around the world. The professional museum world admired the conceptual approach which responds to the relationship between architecture, location, and film. Cinematographic aspects such as light, framing, and the passing of time were taken into account in the design, as was the reflection of light on the water of the IJ.

Eye Filmmuseum exterior
© Iwan Baan
Drone shot of Eye Filmmuseum and the IJ
© Iwan Baan
Eye Filmmuseum interior overlooking the arena and Eye Bar Restaurant
© Martin Foddanu
The view across the river IJ from Eye Bar Restaurant
© Iwan Baan

Ambition

The scaling up involved in the Filmmuseum’s leap from the Vondelparkpaviljoen to the north bank of the IJ was immense. From two screens with 80 seats each and some 50,000 visitors annually in the Vondelparkpaviljoen to four screens with a total of 620 seats. Plus a 1,200 square-meter exhibition space, bar and restaurant, offices, meeting rooms and a museum shop. Sceptics who opined that the ambition for Eye Filmmuseum was overly grandiose for a country not known for its love of film were soon proved wrong. The museum was an immediate success. The hoped-for number of 230,000 visitors in the first year was exceeded by 100,000 in the first eleven months. And in subsequent years this number grew to 700,000; three-quarters of whom visited both the exhibitions and films.

The collection now contains 50,000 films, 90,000 posters, 750,000 photographs and other visual material, 32,000 film books and magazines and 220 paper archives from film professionals including filmmakers Frans Zwartjes, Frans Weisz and Pim de la Parra.

Eye Collection Centre

It may sound strange, but even after the relocation to the impressive building on the IJ, the museum’s space problems were still not entirely resolved. To be more specific: the problems concerning the storage of the collections persisted. The construction of a storage depot was the solution, achieving the ideal of being able to store all the films, posters, photos and paper archives at a single location. In 2016 this became reality with the opening of the Eye Collection Centre in Amsterdam-Noord, close to the museum. Only the nitrate films (12,000 titles from the period 1895-1950) are still stored in remote (film) bunkers for reasons of fire safety.

Eye Collection Centre exterior
© Ton Söder
Inside the Depot in the Eye Collection Centre
© Paul van Riel
Inside the Depot in the Eye Collection Centre
© Paul van Riel

Ever-spreading branches

Eye Filmmuseum is now much more than a museum concerned only with film history. Director Sandra den Hamer describes it as ‘a museum for film and the art of the moving image’. In practice, this means that the museum also focuses on new developments in visual culture. A small selection from the museum’s very many activities: alongside the arthouse premières, there are (historical) themed programmes and retrospectives, as well as attention for experimental film (Eye on Art), the relationship between film and sound (Eye on Sound) and new developments such as Virtual Reality (Xtended). Attention is also devoted to restoration through the series Restored & Unseen and Eye Classics. The state of play in terms of academic research is addressed in the annual Eye International Conference and the series of lectures This is Film! Film Heritage in Practice. And, of course, there are the exhibitions, which are always accompanied by a film programme, lectures and special performances.

In 2009, film academic and curator Giovanna Fossati was appointed Chief Curator. In this role, Fossati is responsible for areas including Research (Eye Academic), and in 2013 she was appointed Professor of Film Heritage and Digital Film Culture at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The combined positions of professor and chief curator is exceptional within the world of international film archives; she is the ideal interface between Eye’s restoration practices and international academic research. Eye and UvA work together within both Dutch and international research projects concerning the application of innovative methods for the restoration, digitization and making accessible of the collection.

still from The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902): Irish Mail L.N.W. Railway Taking up Water at Full Speed
still from The Brilliant Biograph: Earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897-1902): Irish Mail L.N.W. Railway Taking up Water at Full Speed

Since the end of 2020, the latest of Eye’s ever-spreading branches is the Eye Film Player, a streaming service offering feature films, documentaries and short films from its rich collection. Part of this selection is available to view for free. New compilations of clips from the collection of silent films are added monthly. Sources for these images include early colour films, historical travel films and films from the Desmet collection.

Eye Film Player

Toekomst

Because Eye Filmmuseum does not only focus on film's past, it distinguishes itself from many other film museums in the world. The diverse programming reflects the mission that Den Hamer - with deputy directors Stan Spijkerman and Ido Abram since 2015 - has set for the museum: to show film in all its facets, from the early days to the most current developments. From classics and cult films to new digital experiments, and from showing film devices to innovative exhibitions, in which filmmakers and artists capture cinema in spatial, three-dimensional installations.

This approach is appreciated by the professional worlds of film and art, as well as by the public. The public shows it by visiting the museum en masse, the film and art world with praising articles and prizes. Two examples. The BankGiro Loterij Museumprijs praises Eye Filmmuseum for the 'exemplary way' in which it presents the collection to the visitor: “Eye knows how to convey to the public particularly well the complexity of managing an audiovisual collection and everything that comes with it, such as restorations and rights management.”

The Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art Nederland (AICA), the association of art critics, awarded Eye Filmmuseum in 2019 for its special exhibitions at the interface of film and visual art. The jury was full of praise for the museum's views on exhibitions: "Attention is paid to both young talent and big names from the world of film and visual art and the museum continuously attracts a wide audience.”

Eye Filmmuseum is doing something right.

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75 jaar filmmuseum: an overview