The Hendrikje Museum of Bags and Purses

An Enlightening and Enchanting Feast of Fashion

by Mariah McKenna 

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Amsterdam provides visitors and locals with an abundance of museums.  While the Rijks and Van Gogh museum share Holland’s extensive art history, The Historical Museum can provide a vast and entertaining overview of the city’s rich and turbulent past.  For something a bit less cerebral one can always make their may to the sex or hash museum.  It seems there is a museum for everyone so it comes as no surprise that Amsterdam is also home to The Museum of Bags and Purses.

I remember the first time I rode past The Museum of Bags and Purses.  It was shortly after I had first moved to Amsterdam and I was riding my bike down the Herengracht.  As I looked around at the beautiful canal houses, there it was.  Could it be? A whole museum dedicated to that sacred accessory that can make or break an outfit?  I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but from the time girls are little and get their first plastic Halo Kitty purses, to the time we become grandmothers distributing tissue and hard candy from within, and all of the moments in-between; Girls love their purses.  A few days later, curious to find out what was housed inside, I put on one of my beloved outfits, some of my best red lipstick, grabbed my favorite purse and headed out the door. 

Located at Herengracht 573, the museum is situated in a historic 17th century canal house that was once home to a bank.  The museum houses not only the largest bag collection in the world, but includes a lovely historically styled back garden and café.  In addition to these amenities there are also two beautiful rooms complete with original 17th and 18th century ceiling and wall paintings, which are available for public receptions.  On the ground floor there is a gift shop where one can purchase a variety of bag related items (cards, books, pictures) as well as lovely hats and, of course, locally and internationally designed bags and purses.

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After going on my first trip to the museum with a friend I was so enchanted with it I decided I had to write an article about it.  On my second trip to the museum I arrived early in the morning, before it opened to the public, and met with Sigrid Ivo who is the daughter of Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo.  It was Sigrid’s mother, Hendrikje who first started this impressive collection.  Hendrikje was an antique dealer, specializing in small silver table items.  While hunting for antiques one day she came across a tortoise shell and mother of pearl purse and fell in love.  Slowly Hendrikje began to collect bags and purses as she traveled.  Over the past 30 years the collection has grown to include more than 2,500 items, dating from as early as the 16th century through to modern day.  In addition to the private collection of Sirgrid’s mother the museum receives donations and gifts from people around the world who have been to, or heard of, the museum.  About 1/3 of the collection is seen at any one time within the museum. 

The collection was housed at a smaller space in Amstelveen prior to moving to its current location on Herenegracht in  June of 2007.  Over time, as the collection and public awareness grew, the space became too small.  The Ivo family had to decide what to do.  The Met in New York was interested in the collection, but the family longed to keep it in Holland.  Eventually, with the help of a wealthy benefactor, they were able to secure the new home on Herengracht for their collection.  The new space and the collection compliment each other as they highlight the elegance and historical significance of each other.

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Although it is impossible to ignore the aesthetic beauty of the bags and purses, the Ivo family is also interested in the historical aspect of the collection as well.  As Sigrid and I wandered through the collection she would stop at a piece here and there sharing anecdotes about their historical significance.  She told me one story about a small beaded giraffe purse located on the top floor of the museum.  She explained that a gift of a giraffe was given from Egypt to France in the 1820’s in order to form a political alliance (Egypt was fighting Greece at the time).  When this giraffe arrived in Paris, giraffe paraphernalia became all the rage; this purse is a product of that historical moment.  She also talks about the boom of shoulder bags during WW2 when women began to work more and needed the convenience of not having to hold a handle all of the time.  There are many examples like these through out the museum, which deepens interest and pleasure while viewing the objects.

Another important aspect of the museums collection is the Exhibition Room located on the second floor.  The Exhibition Room has a rotating theme that use both a historical and a modern take on whatever the present topic might be.  For example, at the moment, there is a collection of 150 18th century fans on loan from Felix Tal who developed his collection while working as an auctioneer.  In addition to Mr. Tal’s antique collection, there are contemporary versions of fans represented in the forms of painting, ceramics, and more.  This exhibit will be with the museum until May 2008.

Sigrid admits the majority of the museum’s visitors are female.  However, she says when a husband or boyfriend is dragged along they usually enjoy the experience as well.  With so many beautiful items to look at, such an interesting history to ponder, and a lovely setting to enjoy it all in there really does seem to be something for everyone.
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