The name Anne Frank is one known to millions of people around the world. Even if you don’t know her full story, you will have heard about (and maybe even read) the diary she wrote whilst hiding in the annex of her father’s old office at Prinsengracht 263, during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands (1940-1945) in the Second World War. Having read the English translation of her diary myself, I knew what to expect. To the museum’s credit, the exhibitions and displays are comprehensive enough that the experience is still enjoyable even if you went in without ever having heard of Anne Frank at all.
The Anne Frank House was established in May 1957, for a similar reason to why Anne’s father Otto published Anne’s diary in the first place; ‘to learn from the past and to realise what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means’. As a non-profit organisation, they rely on donations and government grants. This money goes towards the day-to-day running of the house itself, but also facilitates the development of educational programmes, and research into antisemitism and right-wing extremism in the Netherlands.
The first thing that struck me was the modern façade of the museum’s entrance. Rather than entering via the front door of the house itself, the check-in, bag-drop and audio tour collection point were all situated in a modern extension around the corner. This is also where the café is (although we sadly didn’t get to sample the coffee or cake!). Although tastefully done, perhaps more interpretation could have been offered into why the decision was made to use this aesthetic for the new façade.
Once inside the museum we were told that no photography was allowed. This was in part due to the fragility of the original items displayed in the museum, but also kept the visitors moving around the exhibitions fluidly. Another advantage of this rule was that I found myself much more present in the moment. Sometimes I think it is easy to get so absorbed by the need to take photos that we don’t know what it is we’re actually taking photos of! It was also at this point that we were given audio tours (available in 9 different languages!) to guide us on our journey through the museum.
The museum is structured chronologically, starting with the Frank’s escape from Germany and ending with the testimonies of Otto Frank and others who had helped the family during their time in hiding. The layout is quite minimalist, especially in the annex itself, where the majority of the content was taken during the Nazi raid of the property. The museum’s conscious choice not to install replica furniture creates a starkness to the experience, but one that is complimented well by the engaging and thorough descriptions of the audio tour. It also means that the interpretation material is not overwhelming in its quantity, instead prioritising quality with hard-hitting quotes and video clips. Whilst breathable, the air in the annex felt stagnant in comparison to the modern rooms of the museum. This added to the authentic, if not slightly claustrophobic feel of the experience.
The most memorable part of the museum for me was definitely seeing the original pencil lines on the wall of the annex, marking Anne and her sister Margot’s growth during their time in hiding. This tradition resonated with me and my childhood and gave me a relatable insight into the day-to-day life of what was essentially just a normal family like mine or yours. I was also struck by the character profile boards which were distributed throughout the museum, particularly those which listed the family members’ location of death. Although reading the names of different concentration camps was harrowing, seeing the location of death as ‘unknown’ was somehow worse. The thought that people could just be lost like that really hammered home the dehumanisation and total contempt for Jews under the Nazi regime.
Among the original items displayed are the diaries themselves, which are amazing to see in person. I found being able to read Anne’s handwriting really powerful – although I do not profess to speak perfect Dutch! To me, handwriting is a very personal thing, and the diaries being laid open for all to see made what was written in them seem vulnerable. It made the contents feel tangible and less like a work of fiction, in comparison to reading the diary in print.
The final exhibition of the museum explores the film and theatre adaptations of Anne’s diary, across multiple cultures and languages. One of the most interesting perspectives I saw was the adaptation of the diary into a vlog format; for a modern audience, particularly a young one, I can imagine that this would resonate much more than a relatively long book might. These are on YouTube and I would recommend a watch: https://www.youtube.com/annefrank
I was fortunate enough to visit the museum in person – we took the Eurostar to Amsterdam which I’d highly recommend! If you do decide to make the journey, the Anne Frank House is only a 20 minute walk from Amsterdam Central Station. It is a very walkable city, but there are also frequent trams (13 or 17 will both get you to the Westermarkt stop). There is very limited parking in Amsterdam generally, so I would encourage the use of public transport where possible. The house is open daily from 9am to 10pm, but tickets must be purchased online in advance. Tickets cost €16 for adults, and €7 for young people aged 10-17. €1 tickets are available for children 9 and under, but the museum asks parents to first consider if such a serious topic is suitable for their child. The annex and older parts of the museum are not accessible for visitors in a wheelchair due to the high volume of stairs, although the website claims that the modern part of the museum, temporary exhibition and museum shop are. I would recommend allowing at least an hour for this museum.
If you are unable to make the trip all the way to Amsterdam, fear not! The Anne Frank House offers a free and comprehensive online experience which allows you to step inside the house and explore the reality of Anne and her family, all from the comfort of your own home! This can be found on their website: https://www.annefrank.org/en/museum/web-and-digital/.
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Mya has just completed her MA in International Heritage Management and Consultancy at the University of Exeter, specialising in the retrofitting and adaptive reuse of Britain’s built historic environment. In her spare time Mya loves visiting castles, stately homes and museums both in England and abroad, and has just begun her career as a Heritage Consultant.
Heritage Twitter: @MyaPlumleyBeere