The Birkin Bag, your favorite school pack, the suitcase you take on every trip. These are all examples of bags of some kind, at the core of which is the fundamental role of a bag as a way to carry one’s most beloved and necessary objects. While it might seem like an ordinary article to showcase, at the Museum of Bags and Purses the permanent collection of, not surprisingly, bags and purses demonstrates how studying purses through the ages provides a glimpse into more than just the silk lining, but rather the larger changes in society and lifestyle over time.
Originally operated by a woman merely collecting handbags as a hobby, the museum began in a small building in Amstelveen, but recently received a generous gift from an anonymous donor: a historic canal house to move the collection into, as well as funds to renovate the interior to adapt it into a museum. The museum currently resides in this converted house, with a collection of 4500 bags. Half of these are on display and half are in storage, only taken out for temporary exhibits at the museum.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the museum is how it utilizes purses from different eras to convey what life was like at that time. More than just attractive accessories, the purses in the exhibition emphasize how, by comparing purses from different periods of time, we can analyze the evolution of fashion trends, technological discoveries, priorities of the various strata of society, and women’s roles in society. The art movements in vogue heavily influenced many bag designers; for instance, Art Deco and surrealist aesthetics appear in the bag designs of their respective time periods. In addition, since the museum is formatted to lead visitors to follow bags through time, they can track the trends in design as materials went in and out of style; while lace, beading, and embroidery were popular in the 16th and 17th Centuries, with the Industrial Revolution, new materials became available and new techniques were invented, such as papier-mâché, cut steel beads, and silver filigree.
Beyond trends in fashion and materials, these bags highlight larger social trends as well. For example, after the First World War, use of cosmetics was popularized; this led to the advent of the vanity case and the minaudiére, a small box with compartments for powder, rouge, lipstick, and cigarettes, with a built-in mirror, comb, and lighter. Similarly, as travel by steam engine and steamship became more comfortable, time-efficient, and affordable, bags and purses followed suit in their design and purpose. Cylindrical trunks, better suited to sit atop horse-drawn carriages, were replaced with flat, rectangular cases, more stackable and easier to carry by hand on a train. Specifically for women, purses in the 18th Century were meant to hold necessities such as powder, a notebook to “make notes on the latest scandals, clothes, and hair fashions,”* needlework, since that was all the manual work women were supposed to do at the time, and a fan, which a woman had to carry with her at all times. However, as women's roles expanded in society and they began to work more, bags became larger and more practical for carrying more belongings, indicating how designs adapted to fit women’s changing needs.
The museum itself is beautiful; the interior design of the house is immaculate and classic. Despite the large collection of handbags, those that are on display are well chosen; the displays do not appear cluttered or haphazard, but are tastefully organized to follow a fairly methodical order from beginning to end. However, while the museum is successful in many respects, it falls short in others. Although it offers a plethora of historical bags and purses, it lacks a thorough collection of bags from more recent times; while the history of bags is fascinating from an anthropological perspective, the exhibit would benefit from a larger section on more contemporary designer handbags and how high-profile designers have interpreted the handbag according to trends in the fashion industry. Additionally, the design of the museum is deficient; displays are indiscriminately labeled, some entirely lacking captions of their materials and origin. Placement of informational plaques is jumbled as well, as they are sometimes next to the display case and sometimes across the aisle. The interior, while pretty, is a combination of dark purple, navy, and gray, often too dark to read the plaques. However, these minor issues can easily be rectified and might just be because the museum is still in its early stages as an institution.
Overall, visitors seemed to enjoy the exhibit a great deal, indicating that the museum has a bright future ahead. With its wide range of bags and its innovative perspective on the relationship between purses and social context, most visitors will learn something new from this unique museum.