HISTORY IN A HANDBAG: The Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam

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HISTORY IN A HANDBAG: The Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam

Behind a rather ordinary door off a quiet canal-street in Amsterdam is one of the city's most extraordinary museums, and this in a city which isn't short of museums.

From the Rembrandt-stacked Rijksmuseum and the enormous Van Gogh collection to the ever-popular Sex Museum and one given over to tattoos (more interesting than you may think), Amsterdam seems awash with collections, displays and objects in glass cases.

But behind the door on 17th century Herengracht, an easy stroll from the central Dam area, is a museum of bags and purses. And when the displays aren't breathtakingly beautiful they are historic, funny, puzzling or just plain odd.

The collection, assembled over three decades, was originally housed in the home of collectors Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo but rapidly outgrew the space available. A businessman – who wishes to remain anonymous – was so impressed by what he saw that he bought the Ivos the current building for the Museum of Bags and Purses which opened in July 2007.

Last year it was voted the Best Specialist Museum in Amsterdam by the city's Time Out magazine.

IMG_0164It is easy to see why. Over three floors in the beautifully preserved house are literally thousands of bags, cases and purses with explanatory notes. The history of these object is also witness to the changing times.

An alms bag from the 17th century bears the beaded inscription “remember the pore 1630” [sic] and when railway travel became popular, luggage bags needed to be more sturdy (leather and crocodile skin became popular) and with flat bottoms. New times offered new materials, such as plastics, mesh and steel beads in the 20th century.

In addition to big bang contemporary names such as Gucci, Chanel, Dolce and Gabbana, Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake and Stella McCartney (weighing in with an ugly affair), the older bags and styles are impressive and often leave you shaking your head in wonderment.

In the centuries before clothing had pockets, bags and purses were necessary to carry money, Bibles, alms and holy relics. And so we see old leather and cloth pouches which would hang from a belt or girdle, and a silk embroidered purse from Scotland around 1745 which belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The embroidery on the 17th and 18th century items is impossibly delicate, there are delicate limoge boxes and chatelaines (decorative carrying chains which went out of fashion in the 20th century and were replaced by handbags), letter cases (one unfolding like complex origami) and colorfully beaded bags with exotic Chinese scenes.

There is an unfinished beaded bag from the Netherlands made by using five needles simultaneously, a tobacco pouch from the early 19th century with a scenes from Robinson Crusoe and bags of fine lace.

bagThe embarrassing truth however is my wife and I were seduced by the most politically incorrect items in the collection: the beautifully crafted bags of tortoise shell and ivory.

A 19th century spectacle case of steel, mother of pearl, snakeskin, tortoise shell and engraved ivory had us gasping with admiration. This was something to display rather than use, a real objet d'art.

Equally so, the gorgeous, geometric Art Deco designs and the bizarre cases or unusual bags in shape of clocks, fish and cars. One bag from the 80s was also a functioning telephone, and Schiaparelli designed a long traveling bag in the shape of the liner Normandie for its maiden voyage in 1935 (see top of page). It is as stylish as it is extraordinary.

The diverse Ivos collection – over 4000 bags, cases, pouches and purses, described as “an ode to all the women in this world” by Hendrikje – includes luxurious gifts from Imelda Marcos and Bottega Veneta, the purse Madonna carried to the premier of Evita, and polished wooden school bags to be hung on hooks in hallways.

bag2There are bags of ostrich, horse, zebra and antelope hide, one an eviscerated armadillo, and others made from the skin of Nile perch, stingrays and toads. As awful as that sounds – yes, it is awful and wrong – the bags are sinfully beautiful. Many are donated to the museum, although it also has an active acquisition programme. In a video presentation, Heinz says simply, “It began with one bag and . . .”

A French fashion magazine in the 19th century once wrote, “A woman can leave her husband but never her bag”.

Behind that ordinary door in central Amsterdam, the elegant, must-see Museum of Bags and Purses offers hundreds of must-haves. Many probably much more attractive to have on the arm than a husband.

Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, Museum of Bags and Purses is at Herengracht 573, Amsterdam.

For further information on the Museum of Bags and Purses see here

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Kate Watson - Aug 13, 2012

Bother. I wish I knew about this when I was there. I love the way you find these random places and share them with us. It was almost...like going. Certainly would be a brighter visiter after the Anne Frank house (which was deperatetly poignant). Now I will save my pennies for another visit.

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