‘Boijmans in the War: Art in the Destroyed City’ from 13 October

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen examines its controversial past

In a multifaceted exhibition that opens on 13 October 2018, the museum opens up about its own role during the war and sheds light on the art scene in the destroyed city. Memories of Rotterdam’s residents are now being collected and will be part of the exhibition. The exhibition is on show until 27 January 2019.


The exhibition ‘Boijmans in the War: Art in the Destroyed City’ explores the role and position of Museum Boymans during the Second World War. Visitors will be taken on a journey into the past and invited to reflect on how they would have responded to the dilemmas of the period. The museum’s controversial history is recounted in the context of the city’s artistic life. How did the war and the occupation affect artists in Rotterdam?

Boijmans in the war

The 1930s were the years in which Museum Boymans, as it was then known, blossomed. We meet the ambitious Dirk Hannema, director of the museum from 1921 to 1945, who turned the once provincial museum into a world-class venue, supported in his efforts by patrons such as D.G. van Beuningen and Willem van der Vorm. In 1935, the museum opened its new building, designed to show recently acquired masterpieces such as The Pedlar by Hieronymus Bosch in all their splendour. It was the period of the first blockbuster exhibitions of Vermeer, Bosch and Saenredam. The museum’s growth was temporarily interrupted by the outbreak of the war in September 1939 and the subsequent Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940.

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View of the German bombing of Rotterdam’s city centre, seen from the Land van Hoboken with Museum Boymans on the right, 14 May 1940. Source: Stadsarchief Rotterdam.

Almost immediately following the dramatic bombing on 14 May 1940, Hannema dedicated himself to protecting Rotterdam’s cultural heritage and, despite the hardships, to stimulating the city’s art life. The collection, part of which had been secured in the museum’s cellars during the mobilisation of the Dutch army in August 1939, was now moved to safety. Partly at Hannema’s initiative, teams of workers roamed the city centre salvaging historical building fragments and tiles from the rubble. Many of Rotterdam’s artists lost their studios in the bombing. Hannema responded by commissioning them to depict the ravaged city.


During the years of the occupation, the museum was, to a certain extent, able to carry on its work ‘as usual’. Under Hannema’s leadership, the museum acquired numerous artworks and organised a series of well-attended exhibitions. Visitors to ‘Boijmans in the War’ will gain an insight into how Hannema and the museum struck a balance between artistic independence and the wishes of the Nazis. The exhibition highlights the difficult questions Hannema faced. To what extent do you dilute your vision in order to keep the museum open? Can you still organise exhibitions under the conditions set by the occupier? Is it important to remain active in such a situation or should you retreat?


The ambitious Hannema proved to be remarkably compliant with the new regime’s wishes and cooperated enthusiastically with its initiatives. But he also worked hard on behalf of Jewish and non-Jewish artists and collectors, some of whom he helped to get released. Nonetheless, after the Liberation he was charged with collaboration and dismissed as director. The exhibition coincides with the publication of a scholarly biography of Hannema by Wessel Krul, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Groningen, published by Prometheus.


The exhibition is accompanied by the latest in the series of Boijmans Studies, ‘A Controversial Past. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and the Second World War’ by Dr Ariëtte Dekker. The publication aims to provide transparency about the museum’s history during and after the Second World War. Dekker is a business economist and is the author of De Club Rotterdam (2008) and a biography of Anton Kröller (2015). The Boijmans Study sheds light on the role of Dirk Hannema and the museum’s important patrons, such as Franz W. Koenigs, D.G. van Beuningen and Willem van der Vorm, before, during and after the war.

Art in the destroyed city

The exhibition explores the various positions taken by artists in the city: artistic, political and in some cases an inevitable combination of the two. Artists who wished to continue to exhibit had to join the Kultuurkamer, an institution established by the Nazis. Many joined, but many refused – especially sculptors – and some artists joined the resistance, while others simply retreated to their studios and shut themselves away from the outside world.  


Everyone had to adapt to the new situation. Questions around opportunism, naivety and different moral standpoints played a role and are raised in the exhibition. What is your role as an artist? When are you free to do as you wish? How principled can you be and still earn a living? The exhibition features works by Rotterdam-based artists such as Dick Elffers, Kees Timmer, Herman Bieling, Henk Chabot and Wally Elenbaas, who were faced with these questions.  

Provenance sought

The exhibition and accompanying Boijmans Study coincides with the completion of the museum’s investigation as part of the nationwide research project Museum Acquisitions from 1933. The aim was establish whether the collection contained artworks with a problematic provenance. The investigation focused on works acquired after 1933 or which changed hands in the period 1933-45. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they persecuted the Jews and confiscated their property or forced them to sell it for extremely low sums. This large-scale art theft occurred in Austria following the annexation in 1938 and in occupied France and the Netherlands. In this period, Dutch museums unknowingly acquired some stolen artworks via art dealers, auction houses or private collectors. In later years also, museums acquired works not knowing that they were stolen, confiscated or forcibly sold during the Second World War.


The investigation into the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has resulted in the restitution of seven artworks. Several of these case studies are dealt with in a separate section in the exhibition. In consultation with the heirs, the restituted works are being exhibited together with visualisations of the stories of the families involved, the works’ provenance and the restitution process.

Oral history

There are still many Rotterdammers who lived through the war or whose parents or grandparents have shared stories of their wartime experiences. In an oral-history project conducted in partnership with Verhalenhuis Belvédère, the museum is collecting personal memories of the museum during the war. The collected memories will be presented on a website, and some of the stories will be featured in the exhibition. If you have personal memories or second-hand stories about the museum or the Rotterdam art scene during the war, please contact laura@verhalenhuisbelvedere.nl.

With thanks to

 The exhibition has been made possible by Stichting Stad Rotterdam anno 1720, the M.A.O.C. Gravin van Bylandt Stichting and an anonymous donor. The accompanying Boijmans Study has been funded by Stichting De Leeuwenberg.

About Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

The world-renowned art collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has over the span of 170 years expanded to more than 151,000 artefacts, which includes some 63,000 paintings, photos, films, pre-industrial design and design objects, contemporary art installations and sculptures, as well as 88,000 prints and drawings.

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