The Hague is distinguished by the range and quality of its museums
Likeable and eminently liveable, The Hague is one of the most appealing cities in the Netherlands. Among other things, it’s distinguished by the range and quality of its museums, which are mostly located in the city centre or amidst the northern outskirts, a quick tram ride away.
The Hague’s most celebrated museums feature the wonderful paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th-century high point when world-famous painters – think Rembrandt and Vermeer – plied their trade here. But there is much more: museums that explore the nature of the city itself, another that investigates crime and punishment, a playful contemporary art museum in the coastal Scheveningen district, and several that focus on the charming land- and seascapes of the late-19th-century Hague School of painters.
Simply exquisite, the Mauritshuis is The Hague’s finest art gallery. Its internationally famous collection of Dutch art is shoehorned into a charming mansion that dates back to 1641. Much of the interior you see today is original, and the silk wall coverings and monumental painted ceilings provide an ideal setting for a mesmerising range of 17th-century Dutch art. Highlights include portraits by Rubens, several stunning pieces by Rembrandt, and – perhaps most famous of all – three wonderful canvases by Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Diana and her Nymphs and View of Delft. Whatever else you do while you’re in The Hague, don’t miss this.
Right in the centre of The Hague, Lange Voorhout is the city’s most delightful square; a wide, cobbled piazza shaded by trees and flanked by a long line of handsome mansions. One of these grand buildings – a former royal residence – has been cleverly refashioned to display the lithographs and engravings of Escher, the country’s most talented – and internationally famous – graphic artist, who died in 1972. Strikingly original, Escher’s works are extraordinarily precise and often bewildering, for example, his Contrast (Order and Chaos). The most popular exhibits are, however, on the top floor, which is devoted to several eye- and mind-boggling optical illusions based on Escher’s works.
With its mighty clock tower dominating proceedings, the Vredespaleis (Peace Palace) is perhaps The Hague’s most unusual building, a grand neo-Renaissance structure completed in 1913. The Scottish-American industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, funded the palace for the best of motives – it was to be the home of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which aimed to secure international peace. In one of the great ironies of the time, however, just as the marble, stained glass and fancy furnishings were arriving, so Europe was gearing up for World War I. Nowadays, the palace is home to several international law courts, but visitors can stroll many of its grand corridors – and pop into the visitor centre for the historical low-down.
Playful and thought-provoking in equal measure, the Museum Beelden aan Zee features contemporary sculpture displayed in an inventive modern building that bores and burrows its way through the sand dunes above the beach at Scheveningen, on the edge of The Hague. The museum has a first-rate permanent collection but it’s the temporary exhibitions that attract the most attention – justifiably, as they are wildly entertaining. Allow spare time also to take a peek at the bizarre – and bizarrely comic – Fairytale Sculptures that line up above the beach outside the museum, the work of the American sculptor Tom Otterness.
Abraham Bredius, one-time director of the Mauritshuis, was an art collector par excellence, a generous benefactor who bequeathed his splendid collection of paintings to the city when he died in 1946. The paintings are displayed in a fine old mansion, where elaborate stucco work and a magnificent staircase make the perfect setting. It’s an easily absorbed collection, which adds to the pleasure of a visit, and one in which pride of place goes to Rembrandt’s Head of Christ. Other highlights include the green foliage and fighting beasts of Roelandt Savery’s Boar Hunt and several lascivious-meets-bawdy canvases by Jan Steen, most memorably, a distinctly fruity Couple in a Bedchamber.
Banker, artist and local bigwig, Hendrik Mesdag (1831–1915) was not, perhaps, the most modest of men, but he did pull off one major artistic coup – a large and naturalistic painting of the beach at Scheveningen as it was in 1881. Completed in four months, with a little help from his friends, this circular painting – his ‘panorama’ – is an intriguing work, the skills of its lighting and perspective seen to good advantage from a central viewing platform. If the Panorama Mesdag whets your appetite, there’s more of his work – mostly land- and seascapes – on display nearby at his old home and studio, now the Mesdag Collection.
Slap bang in the middle of The Hague, in an imposing 17th-century mansion, this exemplary museum tracks through the diverse history of the city. A digitised map demonstrates how The Hague has developed over the centuries, but the star turns are the finely crafted portraits of the great and the good, plus a large and exquisite painting entitled A View of The Hague from the Southeast by Jan van Goyen. Watch out also for the temporary exhibitions about The Hague and its inhabitants.
Let’s be honest here, the Kunstmuseum is best suited to the serious museum-goer – or at least the visitor with clear intentions. This is the largest and most diverse of The Hague’s museums, its vast hoard of applied and fine art distributed within a building whose soft-brown brick facades were designed by the renowned architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage. The museum is well known for the quality of its temporary exhibitions and it’s these that pull in many visitors. If you are, however, keen to explore the permanent collections, it’s best to decide beforehand which you want to see – otherwise you may well feel swamped. For most, the prime attraction is the angular work of the De Stijl movement, especially that of Mondrian.
Opened in 1882, the intriguing Museum Gevangepoort (Prison Gate Museum) occupies the old town’s prison, a labyrinthine, medieval affair which is squeezed into one of the old fortified gates. The main draw here is the museum’s collection of instruments of interrogation, punishment and torture, from branding irons, hand clamps and flogging benches to racks and stretching poles – all the paraphernalia by which the rebellious and the criminal were kept in check. The museum makes a gallant effort to explore the nature of crime and punishment, but the sheer gruesomeness of the exhibits can overexcite visiting school parties.
On the northern edge of the city is Museon, where an extensive range of child-friendly, interactive exhibitions focus on nature, culture and technology. There is something for just about every youngster here, but one of the key exhibits, One Planet, encourages visitors to think about the climate crisis. It takes its cue from the 17 sustainable development goals specified by the United Nations – such as the impacts of fast fashion, wasting water and plastic pollution – and hopes to inspire children to create solutions. Look out also for the temporary exhibitions: a particularly fascinating one on the frozen prehistoric body found in the Alps in 1991 recently featured.