CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Nova Zembla in het Rijksmuseum

Nova Zembla at the Rijksmuseum Exhibition: 22 November 2011 - 27 February 2012

Starting on 22 November, the Rijksmuseum will be exhibiting roughly 75 original objects from Nova Zembla. The objects were left on the island in 1597, after Willem Barentsz had overwintered there with his crew, and were found three centuries later. Weapons, goods, tools and personal belongings will be on display. The exhibition will also include new work by British artist Siân Bowen, who took inspiration from prints that were also found on Nova Zembla.

The objects lay frozen in the polar climate for almost three centuries (from 1597 to 1872) and therefore remained remarkably well preserved. Among the things found were a halberd used to fight hungry polar bears, the tools with which the crew built the famous Behouden Huys [the lodge in which they spent the winter], a fine-toothed comb and a clock: this exhibition brings the visitor up close and personal with one of the most oppressive voyages of discovery ever made. As Jan de Hond, Curator in the Rijksmuseum’s History Department, explains: ‘We are telling the dramatic story of a very exciting period in our history, which comes to life through the movie Nova Zembla. In the presentation we will use QR technology to add meaning to the historical objects.’ The Rijksmuseum, the premier museum of the Netherlands, has a total of approximately 200 objects from Nova Zembla in its possession.


Also on display will be roughly 15 prints from the travel report made by Gerrit de Veer, one of the crew, who kept a diary. This illustrated travel report became a bestseller almost immediately after his return. The pictures in this book tell the story, in comic book fashion, of overwintering in the severe polar climate. Some of the objects found are mentioned or even depicted in the travel report.

The highlight of the exhibition is one of the most dramatic records in Dutch history: the letter written by Willem Barentsz just before leaving Nova Zembla which he hid in the chimney of the Behouden Huys lodge. He ended the letter with the words: ‘May our god grant us safe voyage and bring us in health [back] to our homeland. Amen’. His wish would not be fulfilled: Barentsz died on the voyage home.

Finally, a number of prints will be on display which Barentsz had taken along as goods and which were found as blocks of ice stuck together. In 1977, these blocks were separated from one another at the Rijksmuseum and the prints were more or less reconstructed.

Siân Bowen, guest artist in drawing at the Rijksmuseum

British artist Siân Bowen (1959) conducted an intensive study of the reconstructed prints at the Rijksmuseum and was particularly fascinated by how beautifully the passage of time could be read from their appearance: ‘The extraordinary history of the prints and the ways they have changed over four centuries inspires me to think about making drawings in new ways’. Using old techniques, such as watermarks, blind stamping, drawing and gilding, she has incorporated five themes from the Barentsz expedition into 25 works.