Conserving the Anne Frank Collection

The bookcase

Protection for the bookcase

The original bookcase that concealed the entrance to the hiding place during the war has been part of the Anne Frank House since its opening in 1960. However, the condition of the bookcase has visibly deteriorated. Today, the bookcase has a partial glass cover to prevent further damage.

Conservation of the bookcase

A veritable hiding place

Johan Voskuijl worked in the warehouse at Opekta and Pectacon. In August 1942, he built a hinged bookcase to conceal the entrance to the Secret Annex. The hiding place of the Frank family and the others was kept secret until 4 August 1944, the day they were all arrested.

‘Our hiding place has now become a true hiding place.’

The bookcase made accessible to the public

Otto Frank was the only one of the people in hiding to survive the war. He decided to open up the building at Prinsengracht 263 to the public. It was in a poor state of repair, so he had it renovated between 1958 and 1960. During the renovation, the bookcase was stabilised and reinforced with a metal frame. From the official opening of the Anne Frank House on 3 May 1960 onwards, the original bookcase was shown to the public without other protection. 

The original bookcase

Visitors enter the Secret Annex through the narrow opening past the moveable bookcase. To many people, visiting the Anne Frank House is an emotional experience. They try to imagine what it must have been like to be locked in for two years, always living in fear, and closed off from the outside world.

Authenticity and immersion are important qualities of the Anne Frank House. Most visitors respect the authenticity of the bookcase. Even so, it has sustained damage over the past fifty years. The condition of the bookcase was deteriorating with the growing number of visitors.

Damage caused by visitors

Observations on site and from CCTV cameras show visitors interfering with the bookcase. Some touch the bookcase or knock on the wood. Others hold on to the bookcase to step onto the high entrance to the Secret Annex, and one or two may pull the handle to see if they can still move the bookcase. As a result, the bookcase is covered with scratches and surface dirt.

Preparing the bookcase for the future

Over the years, the bookcase was cleaned on a regular basis, and minor repair work was done. The expertise of external restorers was called in more than once.

Since 2008, its condition was closely monitored. Every year, pictures were taken of all sides of the bookcase. The bookcase was cleaned and restored when necessary. All this to prevent further deterioration.

As the years went by, we learned from the condition reports and from observation that the proper protection of the bookcase required more drastic measures. The ‘do not touch’ sign no longer sufficed.
In 2013, we researched how best to protect the bookcase from further deterioration, keeping in mind that immersion is an important aspect of the museum and that we want to keep it that way.

Expert advice

Together with various experts, we looked into a type of protection that would not affect the visitor experience upon entering the Secret Annex.
In June 2013, we called an expert meeting. Several curators, a furniture restorer, interior experts, a museology professor, and a number of museum directors attended the meeting and discussed the future of the bookcase.

Public survey

After the expert meeting, we invited colleagues from other museums, restorers, and designers to add to the discussion. We also involved visitors and students from the Netherlands and abroad. We asked them to respond to the following statements during their visit:

•    The bookcase is an inextricable part of the room
•    Touching the original bookcase adds to the visit
•    It would be all right to replace the original with a replica
•    The bookcase can be used up
•    The experience would not change if the original were shown behind glass.

Public survey results

The survey yielded different opinions and reasons. For many visitors, touching the original bookcase adds to the visit. Showing the bookcase behind glass might change the experience. Even so, the majority, including many students, indicated that they would advise putting the bookcase (partially) behind glass.

Some remarks from the survey:
•    You would not expect to touch Rembrandt’s Night Watch either
•    The public feels that the bookcase is magical, and it feeds their imagination about life in the hiding place, so it should never be removed
•    The experience will change, but that may not be a bad thing. It may even make the bookcase look more authentic to the visitor
•    I have only just now realised that the bookcase is the original one
•    You really can't use a replica

Protecting the bookcase and the immersive experience

Preservation is important, but so is the visitor experience. For this reason, we opted for a partial glass case to protect the bookcase. This greatly reduces the risk of mechanical damage.

A glass case

In consultation with the designer and the restorer, we drew up a list of demands and presented it to Glascom. Together, we agreed on the design of a non-reflecting glass case that covers two sides and the top of the bookcase. The open front of the bookcase with the document files did not need to be covered, as the visitors do not pass by that side.

Care was taken to ensure that the bookcase can still be maintained and cleaned with ease. Special attention was paid to the attachment to the wall and the load-bearing capacity of the floor.

First, a wooden prototype was made to see if the glass case would fit. Then, the case was made exactly to measure. On 8 May 2014, the glass cover was put into place.