‘One of the 10 best museums in Europe that you’ve probably never heard of’
‘One of the 10 best museums in Europe that you’ve probably never heard of,’ The Guardian gushes about the Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses, 1
The Tassenmuseum, as it is known in Dutch, “celebrates an object which has driven women through the ages to extravagant expense and irrational desire — the handbag,” Susan Yucel opines in a Reuters report on its opening. 2
The largest of only three such museums in the world, its spectacular collection has been praised in the Netherlands and abroad for its range and variety.
So while this is one of those rare off the beaten path gems in Amsterdam, it is one with a larger-than-life international reputation.
In fact, Fodor’s Travel includes the Museum of Bags Amsterdam in its Top 10 of the World’s Best Fashion Museums. 3
The museum contributes to and cooperates with national and international exhibitions. It also plays a role in stimulating Dutch and international designers by organising exhibitions of their work.
Unique Private Collection: Bags, Pouches, Purses, and Suitcases
It’s not only handbags, mind you. The unique, private collection includes 5,000 bags, pouches, purses, and suitcases from the past 500 years.
However, the focus clearly is on bags. The museum chronicles the history of handbags in the Western world, starting with the Middle Ages and continuing to today’s luxury designer clutches. We’re talking Hermès, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Burberry, Channel, Bottega Veneta, and Fendi — to name a few.
Also on display: Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, or ‘the iron lady’s secret weapon’ as some would have it.
“It was her weapon,” notes Edwina Currie, who watched first hand as the former prime minister ran the country using its perfectly packed contents. “Margaret Thatcher used it metaphorically to ‘handbag’ her opponents,” says British accessory designer and Tory supporter Anya Hindmarch. “It symbolised her femininity”.
– Source: The secret weapon that was Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, Evening Standard, April 17, 2013
And then there is the Versace purse Madonna brought to the 1997 premiere of Evita in London. The green, ivy-strewn handbag was designed specifically for her by Gianni Versace, who also design her matching dress and shoes out of the same fabric.
Speaking of designing, wouldn’t you love to have a unique bag yourself? Fair enough. After you have seen the Tassenmuseum’s collection you get an opportunity to digitally design your own handbag!
What men should know about the Museum of Bags
OK, the appeal to women of all ages is clear. But what about their men?
“Men usually come with their wives and find the history of the bag and its social aspects interesting,” says former museum manager Sigrid Ivo.
Men will secretly appreciate the fact that the museum’s collection can easily be viewed in about 1 hour. (That is not too much to ask considering the major brownie points you’ll earn by accompanying your wife or girlfriend.)
As a matter of fact, reviews left by male visitors often mention their surprise at actually having enjoyed the museum.
It should be noted that the Tassenmuseum’s oldest and most valuable exhibit is a 16th century men’s bag — a goatskin belt pouch with iron clasps on its 18 ‘secret’ compartments.
Your opportunity to visit a 17th century Amsterdam canal house
That men’s bag actually predates the imposing 17th century canalside residence that houses the museum. The building is located on Herengracht. That is one of three main canals dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age.
Herengracht translates to Patricians’ canal. 4 This is indeed where the nobles lived — influential regents and rich merchants. They showed off their wealth with the size of their houses and the opulence of their dwellings’ interiors.
It is an appropriate setting for the Tassenmuseum’s stunning collection. It’s a great opportunity to see the interior of one of these gorgeous houses. (By the way, the alternative spelling canalhouse is fine by us).
Dating back to 1644, the building has two fine period rooms used for weddings and receptions. These rooms feature original ceiling paintings and mantelpieces fashioned in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The paintings represent amongst others things a female allegory of the City of Amsterdam5, as well as allegories of the four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and America.
The elegant museum café is situated at the rear of the building with a view onto the museum’s historical garden. It has a good selection of special sandwiches, salads and soups, as well as sweets including petit fours and fresh cakes.
It’s a nice way to round off your visit.
Oh wait…! There’s more:
‘Best museum shop in Amsterdam’
When Amsterdam-based newspaper Het Parool selected Amsterdam’s 10 best museum shops, the one in the Tassenmuseum came out on top.
The best shop to shop after a museum visit is in the Museum of Bags. You have just seen hundreds of beautiful bags, and then you want one yourself. It invites you to buy, has an original selection that fits perfectly with the collection and the saleswomen are very friendly, the jury report states.
– Source: Lorianne van Gelder, Winkel Tassenmuseum is beste museumshop van de stad, Het Parool, October 7, 2014
You’ll find anything from postcards to purses, and from books to bags. Incidentally, the store is open to the public, whether or not you also visit the museum.
It all started with one gorgeous handbag
The museum is also known as Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, after its founder, Hendrikje Ivo:
Hendrikje Ivo (1936) is a true collector. She has always gathered various collections, both small and large. Her interest and love for bags was born when, as an antique dealer searching for merchandise in the vicinity of Norwich (England), she found a splendid leather handbag with a tortoiseshell cover plate. Her interest was so great that she decided to find out all she could about the bag and its history.
Over the next 30 years her personal fascination for this bag grew from a collector’s passion into the Museum of Bags and Purses.
A collection which now amounts to more than 3500 bags [by now 5000+], pouches, purses, luggage and other accessories, from the 15th century until the present day, and has been praised both nationally and internationally for its diversity and quality.
“It is the history of the bag, the variation in material, shape and decorative technique, and the trends in art history that transform an everyday object like the bag into a prized collectors item that will continue to grow in interest and value,” says Hendrikje Ivo. – Source: Hendrikje Ivo, Tassenmuseum Hendrikje Ivo
From Amstelveen to Amsterdam
The Tassenmuseum Amsterdam first opened in April 1996 in Amstelveen, a municipality in Amsterdam’s metropolitan area to the south.
That location had become much too small for the growing collection and the steadily increasing number of visitors.
Aided by a gift from a well-heeled benefactor, in June 2007 the museum moved to its present, prestigious location on Herengracht — just a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s popular 15 bridges spot.
Initially the benefactor was anonymous out of a sense of modesty. Years later it became public knowledge that is was Henk van den Broek, a son of supermarket pioneer Dirk van den Broek.
When the museum was still located in Amsterdam, there was an exhibition by two artists who had recreated the iconic red, plastic Dirk shopping bag with 175,000 embroidery stitches. Van den Broek visited the museum, heard about the search for a new accommodation, and decided to help.
Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses — Tickets
Museum of Bag and Purses — Address & Information
The Museum of Bags and Purses is on Herengracht 573 between Utrechtsestraat and Thorbeckeplein 6, directly behind Rembrandtplein and at a short distance (around 5 minutes walk) from Waterlooplein (at Waterlooplein there is an underground parking garage and metro stop).
Tassenmuseum Hendrikje/Museum of Bags and Purses
Herengracht 573 [See the map of the nearby ’15 Bridges’ spot. The museum is indicated by the purple icon with an ‘M’ in the center]
1017 CD Amsterdam
Tel.: +31 (0)20-524 64 52 [Amsterdam phone info]
Museum and shop: Daily (Yes, including Mondays) 10:00 — 17:00 (10 AM — 5 PM)
Closed: On January 1st (New Year’s Day), April 27th (King’s Day), 3rd and 4rd November (under construction) and December 25th (Christmas Day)
Note: On December 5th, 24th (Christmas Eve) and the 31th the museum closes early at 4 PM.
The museum premises and the museum café are completely accessible for wheelchair users. Only the museum shop has limited access (two steps); museum staff is more than happy to assist.
- Will Coldwell, 10 of the best museums in Europe… that you’ve probably never heard of, The Guardian, May 18, 2015 ↩
- Susan Yucel, Handbag museum feeds female obsession, Reuters, May 15, 2008 ↩
- Laura Itzkowitz, World’s Best Fashion Museums, Fodor’s Travel, September 8, 2014. Note: the museum is also known as Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, in reference to its founder ↩
- Keizersgracht is the Emperor’s’ canal, and Prinsengracht the Princes’ canal ↩
- The so-called stedemaagd or stedenmaagd — literally, ‘city virgin’ of Amsterdam. A Dutch-language Wikipedia entry on ‘Stedenmaagd’ explains, “A virgin as the personification of a city or country is a motif that can be found on ancient Greek coins. In these pagan times the city virgin was often deified and thus worshiped as a goddess. The motif has always remained and it became popular again in the Renaissance. It is especially suitable as a symbol of a republic. ↩
- At nearby Thorbeckeplein you’ll find the famous ‘15 Bridges of Amsterdam‘ and ‘Seven Bridges in a row’ viewpoints ↩
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