AMSTERDAM (AP) - The Rijksmuseum, the National Museum of the Netherlands, is finally set to reopen to the public, with Rembrandt van Rijn's masterpiece "The Night Watch" reclaiming its place of pride.
The giant painting hangs in the same central position it did before an epic, decade long, (EURO)375 million ($480 million) makeover, flanked by works by Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen and thousands of other Dutch cultural and artistic artifacts.
In a preview Thursday ahead of the April 13 reopening, Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes said the far-reaching improvements will justify the long wait.
"It's totally changed, renewed, improved, radiant _ everything is new," he said.
The Rijksmuseum houses the largest collection of Dutch artwork, with many treasures from the country's 17th-century Golden Age and beyond.
The 19th-century building's red-brick exterior, which resembles a fairy-tale castle, has been restored but left intact. Inside, twin central courtyards that had been gradually filled with extra floors as the museum grew over the years have been reclaimed. The clutter has been stripped away to let natural light flood into the center of the museum.
Despite reopening the courtyard, the museum preserved as much exhibition space as before by reclaiming some areas which had been used for offices.
From hand-painted details on every pillar, to newly laid mosaic floors and stained glass windows, to revitalizing the displays themselves, every part of the museum has been restored or rethought.
Pijbes said that almost never has a national museum undergone such a far-reaching facelift, with every single one of the 8,000 artifacts and pieces of art on display coming to rest in a different spot _ with one exception: "The Night Watch" itself.
That enormous canvas _ 4.35 meters wide and 3.79 meters high (14.86 x 12.43 feet) _ portrays a company of Amsterdam volunteer militiamen. It stands at the end of the museum's central gallery, just as it did in the original 1885 design by architect Pierre Cuypers.
The painting's placement reflects Dutch history, a crowning achievement of the Golden Age when the Netherlands was a major naval power and Amsterdam was one of the world's most influential and wealthy cities.
"The Gallery of Honor is a kind of basilica that ends not with a Christian display, but a civilian display: Rembrandt's `Night Watch,'" Pijbes said.
The symbolism is that "that there is no one king that has the power, that the Netherlands is a country where an early republic decided a group of people would have power in their hands."
The main gallery is a who's who of Dutch masters, from landscape masters to portraitists. Highlights include Vermeer's delicate, quiet "Milkmaid" (1660), in which the act of pouring milk becomes an almost religious act; as well as larger and more raucous works like Steen's " The Merry Family" (1668) and Frans Hals's "The Merry Drinker" (1628).
And of course it includes paintings and sketches by Rembrandt, including several self-portraits and masterpieces such as one of his most-loved works, "The Jewish Bride" (1669), which shows a tender couple lightly touching.
The museum's head of collections Taco Dibbits said the 17th-century works will always set the museum apart from other national exhibitions.
"This little country became an enormous sea power, East and West, very rich," he said. "The old masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jan Steen _ they painted the world of the people, not Christ on the cross, they painted the people who made the country."
Outside the main gallery, the rest of the exhibits are dispersed along a 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) walk through the galleries.
The twin arms of the castle-like structure continue to divide the museum into wings, but with floors now organized chronologically by era.
Dibbits said the displays have been crafted to integrate artwork with artifacts that tell the story of the country's history and culture at the same time.
Before the renovation "there was one room for paintings, a room for glass, a room for silver, and so on, while in the new museum, you take a walk through the period," he said.
"The intention is ... to create a feeling for beauty of Dutch art and a feeling for the time," he said.
For instance, he said, you might a portrait painted by Rembrandt hanging above an ornate chest made by one of his friends, and silverware crafted by another of his friends on top of the chest.
"It's the relations between different art objects that tell the story of the Netherlands," he said.
The displays were arranged by French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who also helped design the interior of the Louvre in Paris.
As a final, somewhat eccentric touch to remind the world Amsterdam is still a living city with its own cultural demands: a bike path runs straight under the center of the building's central arch, offering cyclists a view of the building's beautiful new courtyards.
The museum expects to attract as many as two million visitors annually after the renovations, from 1.3 million in the last year before it closed in 2003.
Tickets will cost 15 euros ($19).
Among totally new displays are an Asian art pavilion; access to the museum's ornate library; and a new wing devoted to the 20th century, with works by Piet Mondriaan and graphic artist and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld, among others.
"That's history now too, and we collect the past," Dibbits said, grinning.
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