It is being described as the “museum of the future”, with institutions across the world including London’s V&A set to follow the path pioneered by Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen.
From Saturday, in what is a world first, the King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, will open the Depot, a bowl-shaped warehouse next to the Boijmans museum’s original 1930s building in which all 151,000 items in its revered collection, from the Van Gogh’s to its Magrittes and Dalís, will be on permanent display to the public.
As is the case with major museums across the world, the Boijmans, first opened in 1849 to show of the collections of Frans Jacob Otto Boijmans and Daniël George van Beuningen, has for a long time only been able to display about 4% of its treasures in permanent and temporary exhibitions.
But from this weekend, for €20, visitors – wearing protective coats and asked to restrict themselves to carrying a small bag for the purposes of security – will have the full gamut of the museum’s crown jewels to view across six floors.
Those entering the 40-metre-high building, whose exterior is made up of soaring curved mirrors, will be able to watch the museum’s renovators as they work, learn about the internal workings of the institution, and travel through five different microclimates made suitable for metal, plastic, paper, black and white and colour photography.
The works, including more than 63,000 paintings, photographs, films, pre-industrial and design objects, contemporary art installations, sculptures and 88,000 prints and drawings, are being stored, organised and displayed on the basis of their size and conservation requirements rather than theme or artist.
Due to the lack of curating one would expect within such a collection, it is hoped that there will be an element of discovery and adventure for those looking around. Objects are displayed on movable racks, or in display cases, efficiently packed in, with objects sensitive to light or heat kept in cabinets, only to be inspected on appointment.
“You’ll go through the collection like you would visit a library looking for a book and finding three others,” said Sjarel Ex, the museum’s joint director. “We also decided to take private collectors, to give private collectors opportunities to work with us in the same building. So you see when you go around and you see the floors, you will meet with several collections that enjoy a collaboration with the museum.”
Boijmans is setting a global trend, says Ina Klaassen, the museum’s second joint director. The Victoria and Albert Museum has been taking soundings from the Boijman over its plans for its own version, the Storehouse, in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. “But we have had conversations with people from Korea, Stavanger, Norway, Singapore, they all came along, and yesterday there was a delegation from Qatar,” she added.
“We did a symposium three months ago that was joined by over 200 colleagues in the world and with their staff,” said Ex. “It’s certainly a new typology, that all museums [are considering].”
The idea had been first mooted in Rotterdam in 2004 as a solution to a typically Dutch problem: flooding. It has been an issue for decades and a major flood in the museum’s cellars, the old depot, in 2009 was followed by many more. The Boijmans was spending an increasing amount of money on external warehouses.
“So we went to the city and said: ‘Well, we have this great idea. We think that we want to show more collection because the city actually owns the collection, well like 85%,’” said Klaassen. “They said: ‘Well, that is interesting, but maybe you should start fundraising.’”
The museum did so and has now ploughed €55m (£50m) into its “open storage” facility, thanks in large part to a €27m donation from the De Verre Bergen Foundation. Inconveniences along the way included having to send back the mirrored glass for the facade on arrival from China as it was deemed to be too brown.
In a nod to the danger of water to art, the round building’s footprint is small, at just 40 metres, with a 10-metre overhang. The reflective facade is made up of 6,609 sq metres of glass, divided into 1,664 panels.
Birches, grasses and pines planted on the building’s roof help retain rainwater, which is used throughout the building. Winy Maas, the building’s architect, described the Depot as a “Noah’s ark”.
But, however impressive, the Depot is not an alternative to the main museum, under renovation and not due to reopen until 2028, says Klaassen. “That is a completely different story,” she said. “We can’t function without a museum. This is just the first stage of the museum of the future.”