Gerard Van de Sanden | Dutch Pinball Museum | Interview

In Rotterdam’s Delfshaven district, Gerard Van de Sanden has turned his pinball collection into a museum. He tells us about his journey, the history of the museum, and the difficulties and successes he has encountered.

Hi Gerard, can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m Gerard, I’m from the Netherlands. I’m almost fifty. My life has always been about pinballs! Since I was a child, I was very attracted to pinball, and I made from my hobby my daily job.

I have been running the museum for almost nine years. I’m living my dream!

Let’s start at the beginning: what are your earliest memories of pinball?

Since I was 6, I was very aware that pinball machines were out there. We moved from Rotterdam to a place nearby. Where I lived then, there was a small arcade around the corner. Every afternoon, coming back from school, I looked older men playing gambling machines.

There were pinballs in the front of the arcade, and I have always found a quarter to play! Since then, these machines never left me. I’ve played pinball my whole life.

What was your first pinball machine?

In 1988, when I was fourteen, I bought my first pinball machine. It was the Williams’ Grand Prix electromechanical game. It was more broken than it played but we had a lot of fun with it!

The Dutch Pinball Museum was created thanks to your personal collection. How did you come to accumulate so many machines?

Twenty years ago, a pinball machine didn’t cost a lot, something like €500. So you could buy very attractive tables.

I started buying them, until they didn’t fit at home anymore. Twenty years ago, I started renting empty offices with a friend, and we put the machines in there. We didn’t have to sell them anymore unless to buy other pinball machines. So it started growing!

In 2015, I had a large collection but also things to put on the wall, on display. I had a nice collection large enough to start a musuem, but I also loaned couples of machines to fill up the room.

But for nine years it has grown exponentially. Every dime we earned was most of the time spent to buy other machines. Now, we have nearly two hundred pinball games in our collection. They are not all on display in the museum, 150 are playable or display. And the fifty others are stored for the future.

Dutch Pinball Museum Toupie Hollandaise Ancêtre du flipper

What made you want to move from a personal collection to a public venue?

I never thought I could head a museum. But I started it for two reasons :

  • I really like the educational part. There a lot of nice stories to tell!
  • I want to bring people back to their childhood.

But I did’nt want to deal with drunk people each saturday night, who would have damaged my machines. I wanted to attract nice, respectful people. So we are only open at day times!

What is the concept of the Dutch Pinball Museum?

I really want to teach people what a pinball machine is. Most people think it is a gambling machine, and of course it’s not. So we tell people where pinball games come from, and what are their future.

We have a pretty cool timeline that explains the evolution of pinball. Most people in Netherlands think that pinball tables have always had flippers. But before 1947 and the Humpty Dumpty game, they didn’t have flippers!

I want explain to the visitors that pinball has a very rich history. If no one tells this history, within few years it will be gone.

How was the building chosen?

Like in the Indiana Jones movie: “Choose, but choose wisely”.

I was very lucky. Before the museum, The building was empty, we are the first tenants in 8 years. It has a very nice atmosphere, it is almost 200 hundred years old. The building fits the museum like a glove. I cannot think of everything else to do with this building.

Everything works out for us. Ceilins are high enough to put pinball machines with their toppers. If they have been five centimeters lower, we couldn’t have done anything with it.

I didn’t choose the building, the building chose us!

Dutch Pinball Museum Delfshaven

What difficulties have you encountered in creating this museum?

A lot! I’m not a museum director. I have worked as a house paintor for twenty five years, I don’t have the proper education to run such a place, but we do it all with passion!

If you don’t have the skills, find someone else who does! I’m not afraid to ask people if they do their job better than me. You cannot learn passion, yet it’s the most needed thing to run a pinball machine museum. If you think about business model, don’t do it.

And of course COVID was on our way. In 2020 and 2021, we barely survived, but we eventually made it. And now it’s time to grow: we finally have enlarged our museum. Without COVID, it would have happened sooner. But hey, we’re alive now, right?

How did the people of the Delfshaven district welcome you?

For those I have spoken to, they are delighted that we are there ! I think we are doing great.

What were the first few years like?

In 2015, I wanted to start a museum but also keep my painting company. I wanted to work on my own business from monday to friday, and from saturday to sunday I wanted to run a museum.

This was a very tough period, with no days off at all. But within half a year, the museum was doing that well that I could stop with my other company. From that moment on, it was a full-time job, more than a full-time job actually.

In 2018, my wife asked if she should join me. Now we are both involved in the Dutch Pinball Museum. Every day we work in, at or on the museum!

Dutch Pinball Museum Salle principale

How did the museum survive the pandemic?

It was a very bad period. We are a private museum, so no public funds at all. Some people helped us, we collected some donations… The government helped us but few years later we had to pay all back.

Nasty period, next question! I would rather focus on something positive.

On November 24, the museum expanded. Congratulations! What’s the purpose of this expansion?

Maybe we would have made more profits to keep it small. But the ambition was to make it grow. I don’t want more machines, it’s very hard to maintain so many of them. But I wanted more experience, more educational stuffs, more space between the tables.

A row of fifteen machines is impressive, but I think it’s more impressive to see only eight in the same room. You can see the side cabinet artworks. They tell a lot of story. It’s more presentable if you give the machines more space.

Can you introduce the museum team? How many are you? What are your respective skills?

Of course my wife and me. Wednesday evenings are our maintenance evenings. So ten people come and do their things:

  • One cleans pinball machines;
  • a second one does small repairs like changing the light bulbs and the rubbers;
  • another one does soldering…

Those ten people are very special to me. They keep the museum running. They are volunteers, they don’t get paid, it’s all about the love of the game.

We also have few guys who do the maintenance that we cannot handle. They come from time to time to do the really tough job like fixing boards.

And we have regular staff : we have floor managers, people working at the restaurant…

Today, would you say you’ve achieved the goals you set yourself at the outset?

I think I achieved more that I could dreamed of! Who knew that we would grow this big, go this far? We do it because we love what we are doing. If you do that, things grow more and more than what you would think of.

Does the museum manage to finance itself through admission fees? Are there any other sources of income?

The museum is doing great! During 2023, there has been 25,000 paid visitors. We don’t do free tickets or discounts. The only way we can survive is if people pay their fees.

On top of that, we do company parties. People can book the museum on the days we are not open. We are open on wednesday, saturday and sunday. The other days are bookable for groups.

This combination is fine for us. We don’t have any kind of support from the government. We do everything by ourselves and we are proud of it.

Dutch Pinball Museum Vitrines

What are your plans for the future? What can we wish you for the future?

If I can do the same job until my retirement, I will be the luckiest man in the pinball universe! Keep coming, support us and we will manage the rest 🙂

The final word?

If you want to try something like we did, look for your agenda. If it’s empty for the five next years, do it!

You have to put away your whole life aside and go for more than 100%. Otherwise it will not work. It’s hard, but if you manage it, it’s the most beautiful job there is. Thanks!

Collector of friends who have pinball collections.

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