It was only the second time I had walked into the Teylers Museum, but it really felt like a second home. That is, if home was a fancy old house owned by an eccentric, worldly uncle who may have the wardrobe to Narnia stashed somewhere just waiting to be discovered. It's not for everyone, but it's a rare find for the right imagination.
The Teylers Museum is the country's oldest, dating from 1778. It's a bit of a mixed bag, containing early inventions, fine art, old coins, geological specimens and a library. The building itself is as interesting and beautiful as the displays it holds. Much of the collection remains exactly as it was initially displayed, and while an audio tour is available, many of the museums prized possessions are easily overlooked. That is, unless you know what you're looking for.
I think even the museum itself has found it difficult to define its identity in this modern world, but changes are afoot. When we noticed a refreshed online presence, we decided to revisit, and were graciously offered access to the museum when it was closed to the public.
Though started after he died, the museum is named after Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, a wealthy Haarlem manufacturer and banker. Deeply interested in science and the arts, he left his fortune to a foundation that would promote both. The executors of his estate decided to build a museum for his collection.
It started small, just a cabinet of books and art behind Teyler's former residence. Its most recognizable and spectacular "Oval Room" opened in 1784, and it continued to grow to include library and art collections, a new entrance, new gallery and educational space.
One of the things that contributes to the museum's "home-y" feling is that it's lit by natural sunlight. Every room has its own personality, but somehow they seem like they belong together in this special space.
The library can be visited by appointment only, but special exhibitions are displayed in the rare book room. The library is a beautiful place. It smells exquisite, like a real library should, musty and rich with books on botony, zoology, earth sciences and scientific expeditions. The books on the first floor are protected behind wires cages.
Even though I didn't open a single book, I breathed deep and felt something stir in my soul as only it could for those of us who grew up getting lost in the written word. Card catalogs, dog ears, library sales, scholastic pamphlets, reading in the car, reading in the dark, reading always. That smell, it's like pure oxygen.
We met someone here whose job is cleaning the books. Book by book, she preserves this special place, and I suppose when she finishes the very last one, it's time to start again. The library is immaculate, but like the rest of the museum, you get the sense that its secrets are barely contained.
We came in the back way this time, but coming back through the real entrance I got to thinking about this building again, and how much care has been put into the space, the displays and the maintenance. It's not a museum for the modern age, but it is a museum for the modern imagination. It's the kind of place that makes old things seem new and foreign.
There's a large jar of prehistoric shark teeth on the front desk, keepsakes for the school groups that visit. Trinkets millions of years old that will be treasured, forgotten and lost. Maybe one day they'll be rediscovered, and an afternoon at the museum remembered.
If you know anything about fossils, you might find a few treasures in Fossil Rooms I and II. The collection began when the sciences palaeontology and mineralogy were just emerging. The displays remain much as they were at the beginning. It's oddly satisfying to peer into each case filled with like objects. Notice what catches your eye - some of these objects are quite beautiful, some catch the sunlight, some hide in the shadows. The feeling of the rooms changes with the sun and the clouds.
The Instrument Room houses a collection of weird and wonderful scientific instruments, many acquired by the museum's first director. These were used for public demonstrations in the Oval Room. The main showpiece is the world's largest electrostatic generator which certainly does look impressive. We were told Napoleon even paid a visit to see the battery (which unfortunately didn't work for the occasion).
It's hard to picture exactly what all of these crazy contraptions do, but they are gorgeous to look at. And, with placcards reading things like "polariscope for use with magic lantern," you really can let your imagination run wild.
Today, we are surrounded by everyday appliances of efficience and convienence. They are often plastic, box-like and boring. I never look at my kettle and think, wow, that thing is beautiful in its own right. We live in an era where futuristic technology like computer watches and hoverboards just haven't caught on, and maybe that's because they lack a sense of historical elegance and mystery.
If you like history, science or art, and especially all of those things, Teylers Museum might be for you. Even if you don't, Teylers is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon browsing and daydreaming. At Teylers Museum, you can visit a place unique to Haarlem where history stands still just for you.
Many thanks to the Teylers Museum and to Ayisha for showing us around!
More information about the Teylers Museum can found at http://www.teylersmuseum.nl/en. Following the popular "real winter" exhibition, a new spring exhibition celebrating contemporary art runs March 18, 2016 to June 12, 2016.