‘The plan to demolish the Secret Annexe must be stopped! If there is one place that speaks clearly of the fate of the Dutch Jews, then this is it.’, thundered the editorial of the Vrije Volk newspaper on 23 November 1955. Two years later, in 1957, the Anne Frank House organisation was set up with the aim of renovating the neglected building and converting it into a museum. In his opening speech on 3 May 1960, Otto Frank said: ‘With the restoration of the building at Prinsengracht 263, the aim was to leave the Secret Annexe in its original state as far as possible. The Secret Annexe is unchanged. (…) The wallpaper in the room has been renewed, in the same pattern as before, but the section of the old wallpaper where Anne stuck up the pictures in her room is still there, and the papers with the map of Normandy, as well as the lines that show the growth of the children, are original.’
Ever since the foundation of the Anne Frank House the conservation of this wallpaper, with the pictures, has been high on the agenda of the custodians of the Secret Annexe. A total of three substantial renovations have been carried out on the building. The first two were in the periods from 1957 to 1960 and 1970 to 1971. The most recent and most extensive restoration was mainly concentrated on Anne Frank’s room, and was completed in the summer of 2008.
Ambitious conservation plan
The first steps in developing and implementing this ambitious conservation plan were taken in 1999. The Anne Frank House consulted experts in a variety of fields, in the Netherlands and abroad, and the plan that was drawn up as a result – including climatological, historical and technical research – was carried out in a series of phases. The condition of the wallpaper and the pictures was threatened by a number of factors, the most serious of which were the inherent deterioration of the original wood-based paper; the wallpaper itself, which had partly been pasted directly onto plaster, but in places was also stuck onto chipboard; and the climatic conditions in the small rooms, which were difficult to control. The problems were complicated, and certainly not the kind you encounter every day.
Photo of Sonja Henie returned
All of the sections of wallpaper, the pictures, the ‘growth lines’ and the map of Normandy have been restored. After the war, pictures that were coming loose were stuck back in place with synthetic glue, or even adhesive tape, with negative effects for their future conservation. The restorers were able to remove both the glue and the tape without any damage. The sections of wallpaper were then reinforced with special Japanese paper and mounted on aluminium panels with a honeycomb structure. Despite being only 13 mm thick, these are extremely strong and rigid. And because the wallpaper is only attached at the edges of the panels, it can easily be removed for any future restoration that might be needed. Custom-built glass display cabinets were designed for all the wallpaper sections, so they are now well protected against dust and other outside influences.
A detail of the wallpaper in 1954.
The chimneybreast in Anne’s room
The chimneybreast in Anne’s room has also been restored. When the Secret Annexe was converted into a museum in the late 1950’s, the chimney was given insulation, so that it extended a little further into the room. Because of the altered shape of the wall, the wallpaper was also moved upwards and to the right. When the wallpaper was detached, it offered the opportunity to remove the insulation and the extra brickwork surrounding the chimney, and restore the flat wall to its original condition. In this way the sections of wallpaper and the pictures could also be returned to their old positions. The same applied to a photo of skater and film star Sonja Henie, which had been kept in a storage depot for years. With the chimneybreast now flat once again, the photo of Sonja Henie is back in Anne’s room, in its original place.
Backs of postcards
At the outset of the restoration work in 1999, only one postcard could be detached from the wallpaper without risk of damage: the card showing tea-drinking chimpanzees. Anne was sent this card in 1937 by her mother, who was visiting family and friends in England. In the same period, in 1999, the ‘pictures behind the pictures’ were revealed. These too could be detached from the wallpaper without risk. We had hoped that when all the sections of wallpaper were removed in November 2007 the backs of twelve other postcards could be seen under infra-red light, but unfortunately we did not succeed in this. It was too risky to detach the cards, because of the possibility that they would be damaged. And so, for the time being, the text of these postcards, including the sender and the postmark, remains unknown.
Preserving the pictures for decades to come
An essential requirement for the conservation of the original sections of wallpaper, apart from their restoration, was the creation of a stable climate. To achieve this, a climate control system has been installed throughout the entire museum.
Thanks to this far-reaching conservation work, the authentic traces of the people in hiding in the Secret Annexe have been preserved for future generations. For millions of visitors, the room in the Secret Annexe where Anne Frank wrote her diary is a high point of their experience.