Utrecht is child's play
This ancient, somewhat sleepy university city is coming alive with the sound of children.
It's a pleasant, easy-going place, just 30 minutes from Amsterdam by train. You can take the kids on a boat ride along the 14th century canals — the only ones in the country with pedestrian wharves — although the system is tiny compared to that of Amsterdam. The landmark, 112-metre Dom Tower is the oldest and the highest church tower in Holland and the spectacular view from the top is certainly worth the climb.
But mainly this is a city devoted to museums, with no fewer than 16 to choose from, most within easy walking distance of each other.
They cover everything from railways to religious art and the target audience for several of them is children. The city's newest museum is a case in point.
The Dick Bruna House was opened in February to showcase the life and work of a children's artist who has been called a modern Dutch Master.
Bruna, a 78-year-old Utrecht-born artist is a phenomenon, best known for a little rabbit character called Miffy who has dots for eyes and a cross for a mouth.
Spirited yet uncomplicated, firm in her opinions yet open to new ideas, Miffy has been delighting fans for 50 years. Bruna's books, meanwhile, have been been translated into 40 languages and are read worldwide, including here in Canada. He has also designed more than 2,000 book covers and 100 posters.
The Japanese adore Miffy. Indeed, the amiable Bruna, who looks like everyone's favourite granddad, has even found himself mobbed by groups of Japanese schoolchildren as he pedals to and from work.
The new Dick Bruna House, part of Utrecht's Centraal Museum, was buzzing with busy children the day I was there. Attendance in the first few weeks has been strong, a museum official said.
The walls of one room are covered with a selection of Bruna's book covers. In another, original sketches show the way Miffy has developed over the years. The large activity room is particularly popular as is a large gold statue of Miffy.
"This is something that is very special for me," Bruna said. "And I am very happy that the house is opposite the Centraal Museum."
He's written 115 children's books, only 25 of which are about Miffy. But he understands — who better? — exactly why she's so popular.
"She is nice and soft and children like to take her to bed. It's easy for me to think up new stories about her."
Bruna still bikes to his downtown studio every day, labours all morning on his latest book, then returns home for lunch. After lunch and a rest, it's back to the studio for more work and administrative chores.
His work is characterized by its simplicity of line and bright, primary colours but Bruna continues to work hard at his craft every day; he will do up to 100 drawings before selecting the 12 he needs for one book.
Bruna, who has five grandchildren, has no plans to slow down. He's hard at work on his latest book.
"Parents are very polite but children will tell you what's a nice drawing and what's not," he says. "To work with children is wonderful."
The folks at the nearby National Museum of automatic music would certainly agree.
"Children come in here saying, `Not another museum' but when they leave, they are saying, `When can we come back?'" says my affable young guide, Jelle Verhoeks. "And the parents enjoy it as much as the children."
Its name in Dutch is the Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement — the Museum "From Clock Chimes to Street Organ." An inelegant mouthful, perhaps, but the fun and the music never stop.
Founded in 1956, the museum specializes in musical instruments that play themselves, everything from tiny music boxes to grand dance-hall organs. It draws more than 60,000 visitors a year.
The oldest piece in the collection is a musical clock with bells that was made around 1480; the newest is a sleek, computer-operated, Yamaha piano with a brushed aluminum finish. This 21st-century instrument connects to the Internet and actually introduces itself to you.
One of the first instruments Jelle shows me is truly awesome — in 1910 it was described at the World Exhibition in Brussels as "the Eighth Wonder of the World."
The Phonoliszt Violina consists of a pianola, above which are three violins, laid out in a semi-circle and housed in a sort of cupola.
All three violins are played by a circular, rotating bow and the sound they produce is amazingly sophisticated. The museum has two of these beauties: one, which uses a single cylinder roll, for cafés or nightclubs, another with two alternating rolls, so it could be played non-stop for silent movies.
Another highlight is a beautiful, wooden belly organ, cranked by hand and with little automated figures, made around 1830 by the Black Forest firm of Bruder.
Jelle grins as he demonstrates the machine: "I have a job from heaven," he says.
Talking of automata, it's hard to top the Humming Bird musical clock, made in the latter half of the 19th century. A waterfall starts to trickle and birds hop from branch to branch, sing and fly while the music plays.
For sheer roaring power, however, nothing matches the fairground organ now known as the Schuyt (after the man whose financial contributions made its purchase possible). Once a dance organ, it was rebuilt for fairground duties after serious fire damage.
"It's considered one of the most wonderful fairground organs in the world," says Jelle. "Organ grinders gather here each year over a glass of beer and cry their eyes out, they think the sound is so beautiful."
To celebrate its golden jubilee, the museum is presenting an exhibition called Royal Music Machines, which runs until July 30.
As well as pieces from its own collection, it will showcase others from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Louvre in Paris, among others.
Among the exhibits: a musical carriage (full-size) made for Tsarina Catherine II and a solid silver (model) ship that rolls forward to the sound of trumpets and flutes, and then actually fires the cannon on its bow.
"We have a number of beautiful but completely useless instruments made for the too-rich," Brechje Manschot, the exhibition's marketing manager, says proudly.
The public will be able to watch priceless instruments being renovated by the museum's restoration staff during the course of the exhibition. In fact, the museum is renowned for the skill of its staff and other museums send their instruments here to be repaired, says Manschot.
It's all because the museum believes the instruments should be kept in working order and demonstrated as much as possible, meaning frequent servicing and repairs
"Here, the idea has always been live presentation, not audio tours," he says.
And that's the secret of its success.