The Depot – bowled over by art
2022-03-21 | By Kim van der Velden
A stunning new structure in Rotterdam contains a museum’s whole collection of art, made accessible to everyone.
On 6 November 2021 Rotterdam witnessed the dramatic unveiling ceremony of the Depot of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the world’s first publicly accessible art depot. In the presence of King Willem- Alexander energetic abseilers performed stunts on the mirrored façade of the imposing 40-metre high cauldron-shaped building.
The previous depot was in the basement–prone to flooding–of the museum, also located on Rotterdam’s Museumpark. Director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Sjarel Ex fought for over ten years to realise his new depot plans. The purpose of his mission was to save the art collection from water damage, to make it accessible to all visitors, and to preserve it for future generations.
Since Ex was appointed in 2004, the previous depot had flooded five times, culminating in two floods on 13 October 2013. This proved the last straw when, if emergency pumps could not be started again because of a power outage, Ex was asked to decide whether to save the book collection or the art collection. He chose to sacrifice the books, but luckily the emergency services managed to get the pumps working. On his bike home he shouted to himself “Never again! There has to be a solution now!”
Not a fortress
Ex could have chosen a classic depot concept–similar to many museums around the world–one housed in a building often far away from the museum itself, with high security and only accessible to vetted staff members. But Ex and his team were convinced that the artworks in the depot should be visible to the public. “It would be an amazing way to come into contact with art in a sensory and physical way.”
This vision is in contrast with many museums, where often only a tiny percentage of the total collection is available to the public at any given time. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City shows less than five percent of its total collection to the public. A survey conducted by the Volkskrant in February 2016 amongst 41 Dutch museums revealed similar numbers–on average only 7.7% of the total museums’ collections was on show to the public.
Recently, however, more museums are looking for creative solutions to expose more of their art and exhibits to the public by partnering and exchanging pieces, and by making parts of their depots accessible to wider audiences.
The Depot is the first to take this further, by making the building itself an art piece.
An inspiring sugar bowl
The Depot was designed by Winy Maas of internationally-renowned architecture agency MVRDV (also responsible for designing Rotterdam’s Markthal). MVRDV focuses not only on design, but also on research into urbanity and landscape architecture.
When asked whether he still has the original sketch of the building’s design, Maas told his company website, “there wasn’t really a sketch, it was more a moment when we sat down with the team and we were discussing what kind of building it should be, and there was a sugar bowl in the middle of the table and that was an eye opener: we started discussing how we could design a building you could walk around. That inspired the bowl shape.”
The idea for a round building worked very well spatially–a round building has a smaller base, so it takes up less ground space in the Museumpark. The curvature of the building makes it more inviting, “because you can see around the corner,” says Maas.
When asked why the building’s façade is reflective, Maas responds, “the main idea is a landscape architectural one: How do you make a park bigger? In densely populated areas like a city you want to make the world a little bigger and mirroring can help increase that effect.” Once Ex had formulated his vision for the Depot and Maas and his team had created the design, the construction could start.
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
The collections of Frans Boijmans (1767-1847) and Daniel George van Beuningen (1877-1955) form the basis of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen founded in 1849. The collection has grown to over 151,000 pieces–dating from the Middle Ages until contemporary art.
While the museum is being renovated (due to open again in 2028), highlights of the collection are displayed in the Depot. Other pieces are on display in partner museums in the Rotterdam area or are part of a global traveling exhibition–starting in New Zealand– about the Surrealism movement. The museum also uses its pieces to support educational and social development programmes to democratise art in schools and the city.
Find out more about the museum and Depot here
Facts about the Depot
- The building’s exterior façade is comprised of 1,664 mirror panels.
- You may need to wear a white coat when accessing certain areas of the depot. This is to keep those areas as dust free as possible to protect the art pieces.
- Rainwater is being used to flush the building’s toilets as a sustainable way of using less water. The water is stored in the basement.
- One of the nicknames locals have given the Depot is de pot, which means ‘the bowl’ in Dutch.
- Local brewery “Brouwerij Noordt” has brewed a special Depot beer for restaurant Renilde located on the 6th floor of the building.
- The roof-park of the Depot contains 75 specially-bred birch trees and 20 pine trees, which were hoisted one-by-one up to the roof. The roots are braided together to be able to withstand Dutch wind storms.
- The Depot was recently awarded Public Building of the Year at the Architectenweb Awards 2021.
Building the building
In March 2017 the first pile entered the Museumpark ground. The building’s foundation is comprised of 276 piles, each 28.5 metres long, which were not driven into the Museumpark ground, but ‘turned’ so as not to cause noise and vibration nuisance for the surrounding residents.
In September 2019 another celebratory milestone– the highest point of the Depot at 39.5 metres–was reached. This was celebrated with the traditional pannenbier–a Dutch construction custom to celebrate the reaching of the highest point of a building with (dak)pannen bier (roof tile beer).
While the Museum itself is being renovated and will re-open again in 2028, the Museum’s pieces have been moved into the Depot.
How to visit the Depot
After the grand opening ceremony, the Depot opened its doors to the public and is expecting to receive over 90,000 visitors per year. All tickets must be reserved online in advance. The Depot is wheelchair accessible and service dogs are welcome.
There are three ways to visit the Depot–book a tour with a guide, to see the workshops and vaults; book a tour behind the scenes, to see the installation rooms as well as the loading and unloading rooms; or explore the pieces and showcases on display by yourself.
Visitors can use the Depot’s app to scan QR codes of the art pieces for more information–focused on how and with what material each piece is made and how it got into the collection.
The entrance ticket also allows access to the roof-park to enjoy city views. Access to the roof is free of charge after 5 pm.
Want to read more about other interesting Dutch cities? Check out this article about The Hague’s fascinating histories
About the author
Kim van der Velden has already had a walk around the Depot’s exterior, was deeply impressed with the building alone and cannot wait to see inside.