June 2, 2021
Personal Reflections: The Nationaal Monument Kamp Amersfoort Museum
The Nationaal Monument Kamp Amersfoort Museum expands on the site’s original memorial by telling the stories of some of the prisoners and guards who inhabited the camp, making tangible the oppression, injustice, and fear experienced by the 45,000 people who were held there. Opened on April 19, the anniversary of Kamp Amersfoort’s liberation by the Red Cross in 1945, the new museum is a collaboration between Inbo (architecture), Juurlink+Geluk (landscaping), Tinker imagineers (concept and exhibition), and the Nationaal Monument Kamp Amersfoort.
The new museum is entirely underground, preserving the desolate atmosphere of the land left behind when the camp was demolished. As visitors descend the stairs, the stark, concrete architecture and modest furnishings ‘recall the atmosphere of the past’, setting the scene for the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibition spaces. The temporary space will be used in the future for exhibitions on specific themes, while the permanent exhibition takes visitors on a journey through a dark, corridor-like space, showing them what occurred at the camp before they can re-emerge into daylight on the other side.
The exhibition’s main feature is scattered throughout the room on large pillars: ten photographic portraits that show prisoners, a ‘helper’, and perpetrators who oversaw the camp’s operation. Each black and white face stares passively into the exhibition space, but when visitors open a drawer that contains some of the individual’s belongings, these portraits turn a warmer brown colour and a speaker plays a short account of their life. They are no longer impersonal faces from the distant past, becoming real people with names and stories in the eyes of visitors. Behind these pillars, rows of smaller portraits on the exhibit’s back wall serve as reminders that there were many more life stories connected to the camp, reinforced by a projector on the other side of the room that displays black and white footage from the camp’s operation. Visitors can also view a map that highlights the train routes that transported prisoners in and out, giving the more context to the entire experience of life at the camp.
As visitors pass through the building, the exhibit encourages them to reflect on the relevance of the individuals’ stories to their own modern lives. The back of each pillar highlights a core theme from life in the camp that remains a global issue today, such as hunger and abuse, and a VR experience titled Right or Wrong, where visitors face uncomfortable dilemmas involving peer pressure, authority, and trust. Before exiting the museum, visitors pass through a reflection room containing a mirror wall and a pen, encouraging them to write on their literal reflections about what they have seen in the exhibition. The Nationaal Monument invites visitors to ask themselves, ‘What did I just experience? What traces do I leave behind?’
The thoughtful design of the new museum at the Nationaal Monument Kamp Amersfoort reminds us that the people in the original camp were much more than just the number they were assigned. They were human beings with stories and lives, and they experienced many of the same hardships that affect people across the world today. Due to COVID restrictions in the Netherlands, the museum has only been open to the public for about a week, but the new exhibition will be ready for international visitors who want to reflect on its history when the world opens up again.
For more museum design, see our feature on the Yingliang Stone Natural History Museum in Xiamen, China.