Last week, while Amy was here in town, I had the perfect opportunity to be a tourist and finally go see the famous National Museum from Musical Clocks to Street Organs (Nationaal Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement). It’s one of the Utrecht museums that is always recommended, by both locals and travel guides.
I now understand why it comes so highly recommended! The museum is housed in an old church and retains a lot of the Gothic architectural elements, but in a light, bright, cheerful manner. Tours are offered every hour and come in English and Dutch. I definitely recommend the tour, so that you can hear many of the music boxes and organs in action, since most require the guide to work them. You can read the informational cards and look at the other pieces on display while the guide performs the tour in the other language or after the tour when you’re free to wander around again on your own.
It’s incredible to see the detail put into these musical pieces, be it the decoration or the mechanization. From the smallest of music boxes to the massive wall organs used in dance halls (as seen in the photo above), it’s incredible to see the craftsmanship and artistry. They have a special Haydn exhibit going on now, including a piece left just as Haydn himself programmed it.
One bit of history that I got a kick out of was the fact that the larger street organs became fairly popular in the Netherlands, to a large degree because of the flat terrain here, which enabled the pieces to be pushed around town.
My Dutch language skills are still pretty much in their infancy, although I can string together the occasional sentence. However, I realized I was able to understands bits and pieces of the tour when the guide was speaking in Dutch. (On a side note, I was particularly impressed with his Gs. Beautifully pronounced — and something I don’t think I will ever be able to do so well and with such ease.) One of the words I was excited to realize I recognized was smartlappen. I was familiar with the word due to the Smartlappen Festival held annually in town. The word came up during the history part of the tour, when some of the early songs performed on the chest organs were discussed.
After the official tour was over, Amy and I headed upstairs to see some of the other pieces in the museum’s collection. One piece of particular interest was a royal cart that ran over a track on the floor. The track had the same cutouts as the organ songbooks in order to produce the sounds. When the cart was pedalled down the track, music played. The cart was designed for children, but I think it helps to have a bit of weight in the cart to get a fuller sound. One or two small children didn’t seem to create quite as big a sound. Amy, being on the shorter side, decided to give it a go. Then I tried getting in. Suddenly, I felt so Dutch! My legs were too long! I was too tall! The pedals came up too high for me to be able to put my feet down without my knees getting in the way of the bar across the center, so I had to sit with my legs stretched out and held up, while Amy pedalled us down the track! It was great fun!
So, to recap, definitely visit the museum — one block over from the Oude Gracht — and more importantly, take one of the guided tours. You’ll be so happy you did!