Amid rows of nondescript office blocks in central Rotterdam sits a dazzling structure – a kind of mirrored bowl topped with greenery that looks as though it was sent as a gift from some utopian future.
In many ways, the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen is a glimpse of what lies ahead. Due to open in September this year, the facility will be the first storage building in the world that offers public access to a museum’s complete collection – in this case the 155,000-strong holdings of fine art belonging to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen next door. When the depot welcomes its first visitors, they will be stepping into an experiment that the museum hopes will transform how the public engages with collections.
The facility, which has been designed by the Rotterdam-based international architect MVRDV and has been more than a decade in the making, is the brainchild of the museum’s director, Sjarel Ex. Struggling to deal with an ever-expanding collection and a basement storeroom that regularly flooded, he pitched the idea of an open, city-centre storage facility to sceptical local politicians as an alternative to the more traditional model of
“a Fort Knox property on the outskirts of town defended by a mean dog”.
For some years the project looked like it would be dead in the water, but the museum was eventually able to secure €50m in funding from a businessman who, by a stroke of luck, came across a news article on the plans and contacted Ex.
“He opened his jacket and he had this paper clipping with him of the plans from a national newspaper more than a year before,” says Ex. “It was one of the most remarkable conversations in my career.”
Ex describes the facility as a mix between a Noah’s Ark of art and a “cradle” that will nurture new practice. In addition to conservation studios, a shop and a rooftop restaurant, it has a number of galleries that will be used for experiments in exhibitions. “We can just try out what we would like to do,” says Ex.
The depot will generate a sustainable income, says Ex. In addition to its entry charge, it is renting out space and studio access to a small number of private collectors who approached Ex looking for a storage solution for their holdings. “If you talk about collections care as a cost, it is now going to be a practice that earns money for us.”
It was not part of the initial plan to make the museum’s entire collection accessible to the public. “First we said let’s open up 20%, then we said let’s open up 50%,” says Ex. “And then, at a certain moment, I thought why not do open storage, with the most secret places available via guided tours.”
The port city is a multicultural hub where 175 languages are spoken, and Ex hopes the depot will appeal to communities who are not part of its regular audience. “How could we be a museum for such a diverse crowd if we don’t try to reach out and reform the typology of the museum, without losing our best parts,” he says.
Half the building is free-flow, with visitors able to move through the rooms and explore the collections as they like. Guided tours every 20 minutes will take visitors through the other parts of the building, where they will be able to see conservators at work and artworks being unloaded.
“We thought it was important to show our skills,” says Ex. “We once did an open museum so people could see what we all do. The curator and I gave speeches, and the technicians did a demonstration on how to make a proper crate. Guess what was the most popular part of that afternoon? Three hundred people went to see how the crate was done and I was talking to an empty room.
“The museum is about aesthetics and beautiful displays,” says Ex. “The depot is very down to earth; there are no cognitive tests. If you do not know the difference between Manet and Monet, don’t worry.”