Looking at the 17th-century building of Paleis Het Loo, you would never believe it had a giant new extension. You can see nothing of the white marble €171m (£148m) wing, because Dutch architect KAAN has concealed it under the forecourt of the palace.
“It’s like hiding an elephant,” says Michel van Maarseveen, the managing director of the museum.
But the redevelopment of the 1686 palace didn’t only take in this ingenious trick of engineering, it also meant the team could carry out essential maintenance on the historic building, including the fiddly removal of a lot of asbestos.
Built as a summer palace for the Dutch stadtholder William of Orange and his wife Mary, shortly before they became heads of state for England, Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands, the building provided a secluded spot for key international relations.
Indeed, for its first three years of existence, the palace would have been a political hub for those who were scheming to get William installed on the British throne.
Its magnificent gardens would have also provided space to think and make plans. As part of the five-year works, they, too, have been restored to their former glory, with original plant species, including tulip and fritillary breeds from William and Mary’s time.
One of the conservatories even houses what are said to be the eponymous orange blossom trees bought by the House of Orange, the Dutch royal family.
How did the redevelopment of the palace begin?
Michel van Maarseveen: We needed to replace the insulation, which was worn out after 30 years. But to replace it, professionals had to remove all the 17th-century panelling, then the 1970s asbestos.
They had to wear those horrible suits all summer, sweating away, but finally they could insert new insulation and replace the old panels. All the artworks that were taken away were coded and kept in conditioned storage so we could return them all to their exact spots.
Have the displays changed?
The works on display are nearly the same, but we’ve changed the visitor experience with new curation. Before, it told you a chronological story starting in the late 17th century and ending in the 1950s. Now, we have split it, so one side is dedicated to William and Mary of Orange during their reign in the late-17th century.
Visitors can see how they lived, what artworks they would have looked at and get a better feel of what life would have been like for them.
Then, the other side looks at the 19th and early 20th century through Queen Wilhelmina’s reign (1890-1948). You learn about her childhood and how the royal family has changed over history, including about their sometimes unusual taste in interior decoration.
Are there any key loans?
The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam has lent us a 1641 painting of William III’s parents, William II of Orange and his bride Mary Stuart – confusingly all named exactly the same as their successors – aged 14 and 12, on the occasion of their marriage, by the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck.
When William III built the palace, he wanted this painting hung in the centre of his picture gallery with all the others arranged around it. After 228 years, it has been returned to its originally intended spot. Amazing. We’re so pleased that, for at least a year, they have lent it to us. It makes me a bit emotional.
Did you see the new extension being built?
You know, funny story. I had seen it under construction so many times, but then I was away for just one week when the builders removed all the protection material. I finally saw the incredible bright-white Spanish marble. The building revealed its beauty and it was beyond my expectations.
What can you see on show?
Our first exhibition, Masterpiece (ended 3 September), explained the complex process of building the extension, for instance the excavation, the divers who had to work in low visibility underwater all around the foundations of a centuries-old building – it was all extremely complicated.
We have also shown a new commission by Linda Nieuwstad, which was a large sculpture of an orange blossom, with the scent pervading the space, too. And then we have our permanent exhibition, which goes into depth about the history of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange, with art and objects from our collection on display.
What are you excited about in the current programme?
Our new exhibition, Power of the Throne, because we show thrones from societies across the world. The throne is a universal symbol of power, and in every society we put our leaders on a very visible throne.
What is most innovative about the redevelopment?
Definitely hiding a 5,000 m sq extension underground – it’s like a magic trick. I also really like the introductory movie we’ve made for our exhibition about the House of Orange.
The colour orange relates to the royal family, but it is also our national colour. What is so funny is that even the king sometimes wears orange, like when he’s cheering on the Dutch football team. So, the colour is not only the monarchy, or only the country, it’s both.