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The ‘inside-out museum’ comes of age

Some museums will literally ‘turn themselves inside out’ in an attempt to attract visitors and media attention. The most spectacular example is the new Depot of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, billed as “the world's first publicly accessible art storage facility”. Although the main museum is currently closed for renovation, you can now visit the collections in storage in the depot, which houses over 150,000 objects. The idea of visiting things normally hidden from view appeals to tourists wanting to gain a glimpse of the ‘backstage’, but it also solves a practical problem. Director Sjarel Ex originally conceived the Depot as a place to safely store objects threatened by rising water levels. The inside out Depot raises the collections above ground, creating an iconic building clad in mirror panels that reflect the city.

The Depot - a new icon reflecting the city of Rotterdam. Photo: Greg Richards

The Depot is certainly spectacular, and features a rooftop restaurant and terrace with great views of the city (and good beer). Visitors are treated to a tour of one of the storerooms, which are organised according to the atmospheric conditions suited to storing the type of objects they contain. Of course, if you visit the drawings collection, as we did with the Cultsense Project last month, you don’t actually get to see anything more than a collection of cabinets. The curators are not going to allow visitors to rifle through priceless works by Rembrandt and co. So we had to be content with peering at a series of labels (‘Late medieval Dutch drawings’, etc.), trying to guess what treasures might be hidden inside.

What's in this drawer? Photo: Greg Richards

The website explains: there are no exhibitions, but you can wander through the building, surrounded by 151,000 artworks, alone or with a guide, and get behind-the-scenes glimpses of - among other things - conservation and restoration.

A lot of the experience of the Depot therefore relies on storytelling, and revealing the normally hidden underbelly of the museum to visitors. The Depot also gives visitors a glimpse of the restoration and conservation of different types of objects, including paintings, ceramics and textiles. We can observe from a safe distance as conservators scurry around labelling, photographing and retouching their beloved objects.

Sssshhhh....conservation in progress! Photo: Greg Richards

Part of the storytelling at the Depot is the uniqueness of the building and the idea behind it. There is no doubting that the €85 million building, designed by architects MVRDV (who also designed Rotterdam’s iconic Markthal) is fascinating, both inside and out. But as usual, it is interesting to examine the claim of the Depot to being ‘the world’s first’.

Looking back a few years, we can in fact see that a number of museums have opened up their storage facilities to public view. An article in the New York Times in 2001 was headlined: “Museums as Walk-In Closets; Visible Storage Opens Troves to the Public.” This highlighted a trend towards ‘visible storage’ in American museums, who were facing pressure to remove artworks from storage and put them on public display. The article explains that this trend dates back to the 1970s, driven by a desire to democratise museums. But the first example of a museum encouraging visitors to wander around the storage rooms can be dated to 1988, when the Henry R. Luce Study Center for the Study of American Art opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This features 18,312 objects, about 80% percent of the museum’s collection of American art and decorative objects. As the Times article notes,

In some ways the concept of visible storage runs counter to the other prevailing trend among American museums, which is to coddle, entice, entertain and envelop the public in an interactive embrace.

Instead we are seeing the convergence of other important trends in the development of accessible depots. Firstly, it reflects the trend towards allowing multiple interpretations of culture. The visitors are free to wander the collections, and create their own stories about wat they see. It is a form of ‘creative tourism’ encased in a museum. Secondly, it relates to the growing fascination with ‘stuff’: a reversal of the trend towards intangible culture that has been evident in recent decades. We are now surrounded by people collecting, curating and parading their things (and other people’s things) on Instagram, or fixing old objects in the repair café. It seems that people no longer want empty minimalism, but rather the reassuring touch and feel of real things. This may also herald a move back to the origins of the museum as curiosity cabinet – a collection of objects that displayed personal interests in nature, science or society.

Of course, once we all start creating our own curiosity cabinets there will be a vast demand for storage for objects. Luckily, the Booijmans Depot also rents out storage space to third parties….

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