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Long fight for peace at the Kröller Müller Museum of Art


By Ron Smith


The war bunker built to preserve the art works from the War.
The war bunker built to preserve the art works from the War.

The Netherlands conjures up many images in people’s minds, the crowded and liberal Amsterdam, stylish Den Haag with the huge Scheveningen beach, or busy Utrecht with its wonderful railway museum.

There is also art and culture everywhere, and it can be discovered in surprising places.

About an hour east of Amsterdam is the village of Otterlo. It is in the De Hoge Veluwe national park, mostly sand, heather and pine trees. It was here on September 17, 1944, on Ginkel Heath, that the 7th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borders landed in gliders to secure the heath as a drop zone for the 2000 parachutists who would land on the 18th.

There was fierce fighting and the parachutists dropped into a raging battle! However, they managed to push the Germans back and advance on Arnhem.

However, despite all the widespread fighting, there remained an oasis of peace in the woods, the Kröller Müller Museum of Art.

There are a great many events in the Netherlands this year, marking 75 years of freedom and peace, and easy to visit with the wonderfully comprehensive Dutch public transport system (and cheaper than here too). As part of many tours and individual visits, the museum is a “must”.

One of the many art works, a Ginko tree grows up through the hammer head sculpture - eventually it will form the shaft of the hammer.
One of the many art works, a Ginko tree grows up through the hammer head sculpture - eventually it will form the shaft of the hammer.

It started as the vision of one woman, Helene Kröller Müller. Her family, typically Dutch, grew a shipping and trading empire, so she was very wealthy and bought works by Van Gogh (the museum is the second largest collection of his works in the world), with 88 paintings and 182 drawings, plus works by Picasso, Mondrian and others in the collection of over 20,000 items.

Her desire was to build a museum for the collection and donate it to the Dutch people. After visiting the Veluwe in 1914, she decided that this would be an ideal spot, in the peace and tranquility of the wooded park, and be one with nature.

The famous Belgian architect, known for the Bauhaus work in Weimar before the Nazis expelled him, Henri Van de Velde designed the building, so everything is functional and works. The acoustics, light, space, accessibility (all wheelchair accessible, as are most of the gardens) and functionality are excellent.

It was opened in 1938. In the 1970s a new wing was added. Today there is also a 25-hectare sculpture park surrounding the building, which opened in 1961 with over 160 pieces by Henry Moore, Nelson, Smith, Serra and many others.

The museum opened at a difficult time and, although it was welcomed and popular, the shadows of war loomed over it. Just before she died in 1939, Helene had commissioned the construction of a bombproof bunker in a sand dune nearby.

One of Van Gogh’s most significant works, “The Potato Eaters” is in the Museum, together with his preliminary sketches and portraits of each eater.
One of Van Gogh’s most significant works, “The Potato Eaters” is in the Museum, together with his preliminary sketches and portraits of each eater.

On May 10, 1940, the German army rolled through the Netherlands, fortunately passing by the museum, as the bunker was not finished.

To start with, nothing changed. Exhibitions were held, talks given, including on the radio. The Germans completed the bunker and even covered it with 20 feet of sand. The paintings were transferred to the bunker by the staff, on a handcart.

It was closed, and the heating plant put into operation so that there was constant temperature and humidity in it. Later in the war, the Allies were advancing and Operation Market Garden attempted to capture vital bridges.

The Arnhem operation failed and the Germans told the entire population of the city to evacuate immediately. The hospitals in Arnhem moved to the museum.

The Canadians liberated most of the Netherlands, and on April 15, 1945, they reached the museum. However, the Germans, around the entrance to the site, put up a fierce resistance, and the Canadians drove one of their biggest tanks onto the top of the bunker to use it as a firing point. Not a problem to the bunker!

The outside of the original Van Der Velde entrance, in Bau Haus style.
The outside of the original Van Der Velde entrance, in Bau Haus style.

As soon as the war ended, the Canadians helped to move all the art back into the galleries. The museum reopened on October 6, 1945, bringing some normality back to life in the Netherlands.

The museum is as popular as ever, and around 450,000 visitors a year go there. In 1994 all Dutch museums were converted into foundations, which gives them access to state and lottery funding.

Incidentally, when the Germans came, they took three paintings by German artists back to Germany, and paid 600,000 guilders. This enabled the museum to buy more paintings. After the war, the three paintings were returned to them – but they didn’t have to give the money back!

There are 80 staff, 10 guides, lockers, a shop, café, and a sense of peace and calm.

Access is easy, the museum is open throughout the year, but not on Mondays. Dutch railways have four trains an hour on most lines, buses from Apeldoorn and Ede – Waggeningen railway stations take you to Otterloo where connecting bus 106 takes you to the museum.

There are three entrances, where there are white bicycles, wheelchairs, walking frames and child buggies, all free to use.

The free-to-use bicycles at one of the entrances to the Museum in the woods.
The free-to-use bicycles at one of the entrances to the Museum in the woods.

For more information go to www.krollermuller.nl



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