Shiny storage – the Boijmans Depot and the future of museum archives

Archive and storage buildings are usually located in the suburbs or on former docks. They are deliberately discreet generic warehouses, without windows, surrounded by fences. The question posed by Boijmans van Beuningen’s new 55 million euro storage depot is: what if the archives were instead at the heart of the campus? The most visible and enigmatic building?

The Rotterdam museum building – a mirrored vessel that looks more like an art installation than an institution – is a very unlikely form. Winy Maas of Dutch architects MVRDV jokingly calls it half “de pot” (the pot) rather than depot. And it is what it is – a reflective pot with greenery on top that looks like a fuzzy green cup.

No matter how many times critics and architects declare the end of the icon era, it keeps coming back. And there it is again, a big shiny object — architecture as a logo. The directors and curators are all wearing oversized pot-shaped mirror badges, like we haven’t come up with the idea yet.

Despite what seems like a throwback to an era of empty architectural gestures, this building is cutting edge. The world’s major museums, including the V&A in London (which is building a large accessible archive in the Olympic Park with architects Diller Scofidio & Renfro), seem to have suddenly, collectively, decided that the archive is the future. In their desire to democratize and open up their collections, many of them are looking for ways to reveal the vast reserves of treasures and allow visitors a less organized journey.

Visitors can examine the museum’s treasures which are usually hidden in the archives © Iris van den Broek

It’s kind of like a game. The idea that visitors can wander around the archives at their leisure to discover, uncover and remove objects they like is a fantasy. Many will catch a glimpse of huge storage sheds in which they might come across amusing juxtapositions: 1980s furniture and 18th century carvings, for example. They will be able to request pieces in advance and to get the most out of this experience they will need to study the archives, which itself is a form of democratization.

The question is whether this game is really a game-changer. Perhaps the first thing to say is that despite my tremendous boredom with iconism, this building is fun. It seems totally impractical (why round?) and incongruous in the middle of the Boijmans campus of serious 1930s Dutch modernism. the odd way it sits on the ground, tapering at the base as if it might wobble, is enough to distract you from the joints in the glass.

Maybe because it’s sitting on a small footprint, maybe because it’s mirrored, maybe because it’s in the middle of a big space, it doesn’t look so big. But inside, it’s vast. Pop art, fashion, furniture, old masters collide and bounce off each other. It seems studied irreverently.

Silver stairs and walkways in the building

The building is surprisingly large, despite its small footprint © Ossip van Duivenbode

Storage rooms are cavernous and windowless. The rectangular pieces are awkwardly crammed into a circle, a configuration that turns out to be an advantage as the paintings are spread out on sliding panels across the curved spaces like a magician’s deck of cards. You may be able to spot Bruegel’s incredible painting of the Tower of Babel or Rembrandt’s tender portrait of his son, “Titus at his desk”. Maybe a Rothko or a Richter, a Magritte or a Munch. The layout is more or less chronological. Most of the rooms seem reserved for “oversized mixed media objects”, which I guess is as good a description of contemporary art and design as any.

There are restoration workshops where you can observe paintings and sculptures being cleaned with cotton swabs by people in white coats (which visitors are also expected to wear while walking through the archives). The idea is to expose not only the scope of the collection, but also the processes.

Boijmans co-director Sjarel Ex asks, “Why wouldn’t visitors also appreciate the work of the security staff, technicians and artwork managers? It is a democratization by flattening, a new world next to the old masters, young creators next to the rococo craftsmen. There is, in a very Dutch way, says Ex, no hierarchy.

Shiny silver building sits in front of a cityscape
The mirrored surface should make the building more inclusive, says co-director Sjarel Ex © Ossip van Duivenbode

The Boijmans claims to be the “first publicly accessible art warehouse” in the world. This is both slightly hypocritical and above all true. Buildings such as Basel’s incredible Schaulager are also opening up art storage (albeit by appointment) while the nearby Vitra Schaudepot is doing so for furniture and design storage in a truly drastic way. Both buildings were designed by Herzog & de Meuron, who have always negotiated the line between the industrial look of storage space and exhibition theatre.

Ex designates the mirror surface of the deposit as the institution’s attempt to deal with any trace of elitism: passers-by can see themselves reflected. This, coupled with the apparent non-conservation (and reality of extreme selection) and migration of information from labels to an application, looks like denial of hierarchy. But if it makes it possible to discover works by unknown artists, it is especially useful for specialists who know exactly what they are looking for.

That’s not to say it’s not the right approach. It’s a very enjoyable experience, and as the main museum is being renovated, it reveals some of the artifacts in a really accessible way. But Ex is perhaps more apt when he describes the depot as “a hotel for stuff.” And just as any hotel is meticulously designed to deliver a particular type of experience, so is this new building. Like it or not, this is the future.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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