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In most major museum and galleries around the world, only a fraction of the institution’s collection is on display at any given time. Instead, the majority of all those artworks and artefacts — up to 94 per cent on average, by one international estimate — remain stockpiled away away from public eyes. In Rotterdam, however, a new storage depot for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen reimagines the paradigm, bringing a collection of 151,000 artefacts into public view.

Designed by local architects MVRDV, the new facility — opening on November 6 — takes the shape of a giant steel salad bowl, topped with requisite greens. Touted as “the world’s first fully accessible art depot,” the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen stakes a commanding presence along central Rotterdam’s Museumpark promenade. Comprising 1,664 mirrored glass panels that span across 6,609-square-metre, the ovular — and unmistakable — structure meets the city with a bold, reflective facade.

While the building’s aesthetic spectacle creates an immediate statement, the attention-grabbing form is rooted in more practical concerns. For starters, the precisely controlled conditions required for art storage limited the building’s fenestration, necessitating an almost entirely opaque, windowless facade. Similarly, the building’s bowl shape is a response to the public, pedestrian-oriented nature of the site: the designers sought to minimize the footprint at street level, while creating a new publicly accessible green space and restaurant on the rooftop.

The depot’s relatively compact street-level footprint is complemented by the reflective glazing, which is intended to immerse — or even conceal — the structure within its urban surroundings. Punctuated by a discrete series of 13 windows which almost disappear into the reflective glass in the daytime, the monolith rises to a height of 39.5 metres.

For all that, the real show awaits inside. Spanning seven storeys, the 15,000-square-metre facility features a range of climactic environments and curated displays, with 99 per cent of the floor area publicly accessible. “Artefacts stand wrapped, hanging from a rack, displayed in a cabinet or exhibited in one of the 13 gigantic display cases suspended in the atrium,” explains MVRDV.

Inspired by the etchings of Giovanni Piranesi, five zig-zagging stairways (and accessible elevators) weave through the expansive inner atrium, conveying visitors on an immersive journey. In order to ensure optimal storage conditions for each artwork and artefact, the space necessitated a different type of curatorial practice. Instead of arranging artefacts thematically or chronologically, the works are arranged based on ideal storage conditions, with “metal, plastic, organic/inorganic, black-and-white and colour photography” organized into climactic zones.

Although the majority of the 151,000 works remain out of immediate view, visitors can request to view individual works, including the thousands of prints, drawings and photographs stored in enclosed spaces. Film and video works are also displayed in the depot’s projection rooms. Alongside opportunities to view the art, the depot provides an up-close, educational look at the process of maintaining and preserving the museum’s collection, from packaging and transport to highly specialized restoration.  

Expected to attract approximately 150,000 to 250,000 visitors per year, the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen transforms a back of house facility into a public showpiece. Appropriately, the building is also topped by a panoramic rooftop. A grove of 76 multi-stemmed birch trees — which were bred in a nursery for three years while the building was under construction — caps the complex, and a rooftop restaurant promises yet another invitation to linger.

In Rotterdam, MVRDV Brings Art Storage into Public View

A new depot for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen transforms the humble storage facility into a showpiece in its own right.

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