Going Dutch

Last week I spent a pleasant couple of days in the Netherlands, taking in Amsterdam, Leiden and The Hague, mainly looking at items we hope to borrow for the exhibition we are planning for next year.

The Netherlands is an obvious place to go, of course, since it has such an extraordinarily rich maritime history going back way before 1714. Coming to the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, you are left in no doubt why seafaring countries were searching for ways of improving navigation generally.

The replica of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) ship, the Amsterdam, which began long-distance voyages in 1749, shows vividly just how much valuable cargo could be lost if the ship went astray.

As the Scheepvaartmuseum displays remind you, however, the Dutch Golden Age was in the 17th century, and it was some of the attempts to develop effective methods of determining longitude in that period that I was particularly keen to have a look at. Some are in the Scheepvaartmuseum, of course, including a fine collection of navigational instruments, but I was also able to get into the newly reopened and very impressive Rijksmuseum (Tip: get there early), where there's a lot of material relating to the VOC and Dutch activities overseas.  As far as longitude matters are concerned, the most intriguing is a group of instruments found at Nova Zembla, which include an astrolabium catholicum and a copper plate believed to have been used for determining longitude by magnetic variation. I was also rather surprised to come across a pocket nocturnal and astrolabe belonging to René Descartes.

The rest of the trip was focused on Christiaan Huygens (of whom Descartes was a family friend, incidentally), whose groundbreaking horological work included many attempts to perfect timekeepers for determining longitude at sea. I was lucky enough to look at some original manuscripts at Leiden University Library, which holds a huge number of his letters and other writings, as well as visiting the Museum Boerhaave, for whom Huygens is naturally an important figure. They have a very nice 1930s reconstruction of one of his marine clocks, as well as an 18th century longitude timekeeper designed by Lotharius Zumbag de Koesfelt and later made by his son.

In fact, the reconstructed Huygens sea clock is currently in a special exhibition about Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens in The Hague (where they are buried), as is a very fine portrait of Christiaan by Caspar Netscher. The exhibition has some nice ideas, in particular in trying to get across how well-connected Constantijn and Christiaan were and a digital 'Wall of Plenty' that allows you to explore the amazing diversity of Huygens' scientific and technical interests. Nonetheless, I did feel that the exhibition could have had a bit more substance, a bit less design. It did, however, give me the frightening experience of remembering what I looked like with hair:

Not one for the faint-hearted!