Opening art storage to the public

The upcoming Depot Boijmans van Beuningen is a storage centre for the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and is likely to welcome visitors when it is completed in 2021.
The upcoming Depot Boijmans van Beuningen is a storage centre for the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and is likely to welcome visitors when it is completed in 2021.PHOTO: BOIJMANS/INSTAGRAM

ROTTERDAM • Mr Sjarel Ex stood in the basement of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, ankle-deep in rising waters.

Rotterdam's fire chief told him its collection of paintings would be destroyed within 30 minutes unless Mr Ex, a co-director of the museum, gave permission to sandbag the library, sacrificing the books.

In the end, the art was saved and only a couple of hundred volumes were lost.

The 2013 event catalysed Mr Ex's campaign to move the collection. "From that moment on, we were not so very polite about the need to have a new storage facility," he said.

He fought for this as part of a plan to close the 1935 museum for renovations, which were already under discussion. But rather than building a fortified "black box" somewhere, he saw an opportunity to do something radical by opening the museum's storage to the public while the main building was closed.

"The first plans were that maybe 20 or 40 per cent would be accessible," he said. "At a certain moment, we said: 'Why don't we make it entirely accessible?'"

Six years later, the museum is spending nearly €85 million (S$128 million) on the Depot Boijmans van Beuningen, a glittering, mirrored building.

Designed by MVRDV architects, the storage centre is in the city centre, next to the museum.

The main building - closed for a €234 million renovation - is set to reopen in late 2025, but the Depot will welcome visitors first.

When completed in 2021, it will contain the museum's entire collection of 151,000 artworks as well as curators' offices, conservation studios, a movie theatre, a restaurant and a rooftop garden.

The Depot represents a shift in thinking about public access to an institution. He estimated that about 7 per cent of most major museum holdings are on view at any time.

As collections have grown, institutions are seeking to balance two mandates: protecting and preserving works, and sharing as much as possible with the public.

Plans for the Depot have drawn officials from museums in Finland, Norway, South Korea and Sweden to Rotterdam.

In Paris, the museums along the Seine that are vulnerable to flooding - including the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay and Musee du Quai Branly - are considering storage solutions that may be partly open to the public.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is following close on the heels of the Boijmans Depot, with its V&A East storage facility expected to open in 2023. The new space will house about 250,000 objects and 1,000 separate archives, which visitors can explore.

Mr Tim Reeve, strategic leader of the project, said V&A East would be "an endlessly changing cabinet of curiosities" from the collections of furniture, fashion, textiles and art. Visitors could also learn from curators how exhibitions are planned and watch conservators at work.

Other museums have taken small steps towards open access, with so-called visible storage.

The Henry Luce Foundation has supported "open study" centres at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington and Brooklyn Museum that allow visitors to see works in storage, usually in curated displays that can be viewed only through glass walls.

In October, the Pompidou Centre in Paris said it would build a depot in the city's suburbs. It will be "partly open to the public, so that it can benefit from a new type of contact with the work", the museum said.

Mr Reeve, a deputy director of the V&A, said the museum wanted to "move the dial" with its new facility. "The idea is really to take down the glass wherever possible, take down the barriers wherever possible. It's not just an architectural model or a logistics move. It's a cultural change."

On a recent tour of the Boijmans Depot construction site, Mr Ex pointed out the criss-crossing staircases that will lead visitors to exhibition rooms and curators' studios, and structures that will eventually hold glass display vitrines.

He noted proudly that the storage rooms start around 6m above sea level - an important consideration in the Netherlands, which is particularly vulnerable to flooding.

"It's all about the public," he said. "Bringing the outside in." NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2020, with the headline 'Opening art storage to the public'. Subscribe