The World's First Art Depot: An Art Archive with a Difference

Architect Winy Maas and museum director Sjarel Ex share the ideas and inspirations behind Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen in the Netherlands, the world’s first public art storage facility.

Editorial Team17 Jun 2022

Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen is not your average art museum; in fact, it’s not really a museum at all. Located in Rotterdam’s Museumpark, it is the world’s first publicly accessible art storage facility, created to house more than 151,000 objects – including works by the likes of Van Gogh, Monet and Dali – from the collection of the neighbouring Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.


The Depot is the first building in the world to make a museum’s entire collection open to the public; most museums can only display less than ten per cent of their collection at any given time. “Normally in museums, curators pick pieces and show them in a certain way – but with an archive, you can’t do that. It’s completely functional and democratic; you’re the one that creates the experience,” explains Winy Maas, co-founder of MVRDV, the architecture firm behind the Depot’s design.


Rather than being arranged by chronology or art movement as in a museum, the works are spread across fourteen storage compartments and organised into five different climate zones, based on their temperature and humidity requirements – meaning paintings, films, photography, sculptures and more are mixed together, allowing visitors to draw their own connections. “By having the archives open to the public, we increase curiosity and can start new conversations and stories about inspiration, creativity, the development of different styles and the history of humankind,” says Sjarel Ex, director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.


The Depot’s striking architecture is something of a work of art in itself. Tasked with creating a building that was as inviting as possible, while still integrating seamlessly into its existing Museumpark surroundings, MVRDV hit upon the idea of designing a seven-floor circular structure with a distinctive mirrored façade, containing 6,609 square metres of glass split into 1,664 panels.


“Normally, archive buildings are square and in industrial areas, but this one is in the middle of a park,” Maas describes. “We had to make a building that loves the park – which we did by making it round, so there are no corners, and so that you’ll always have great vistas and can look around.” The building’s footprint was also kept intentionally small, to not detract from the park’s open space – but by curving upwards and outwards into a bowl-shape, ensured its area was large enough to accommodate the entire collection.


Maas continues, “We made a cantilever to have more trees on the rooftop, and the mirrors also reflect the park.” The result is that the Depot reflects the park’s greenery from every angle, blending in with its verdant surrounds – including from above too, thanks to the tree-filled rooftop garden – and creating a tangible visual relationship with its neighbouring environment. “It looks like everybody,” Maas remarks.


Inside, the Depot’s centrepiece is its 40-metre atrium, which extends from the ground floor to the rooftop, with criss-crossing staircases that lead visitors throughout the building and thirteen floating glass cases displaying an ever-changing selection of works. While archives are typically built for storage efficiency, the Depot has been designed with more of a “hospitality concept” in mind, Maas says, with extra space dedicated to “showing art that spools out from the collection”. Objects are kept in cabinets, shelves and slide-out carousel-style racks in the storage areas, with the building’s curves providing ready-made spaces for sitting or standing to view works; guided tours are available, plus screening rooms for film and video pieces, while guests can also request to view specific objects. Ex advises guests to “just go with the flow” during their visit, saying “it’s a very social experience”.


This free-ranging experience also gives visitors an important behind-the-scenes glimpse of the inner workings of a depot, and the efforts that go into preserving and managing its collection. Glass walls allow guests to look inside storage compartments, seeing where works are unloaded or prepared for transportation, while open studios offer a chance to watch curators, conservators and restorers at work.


As Ex explains, “Collectors like sharing their collections, but what is underestimated is the story in-between – how you store a collection and connect knowledge to the objects, what is necessary for climate and protection, which systems for storing and displaying can be used, how a collection can be handled and secured, and even what happens to it after your life... All this is oddly interesting to the general audience and becomes very clear when people visit the Depot.”


Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen may have been founded back in 1849 – but it’s clear that the creation of the Depot delivers a whole new perspective on its collection, allowing guests the freedom to explore the archive however they choose. “People feel connected to both the objects and each other,” Ex declares. “Our shared history, talents and skills are reflected in these collections – and our intention is to make all visitors proud civil owners of these treasures.”