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Interview with Sjarel Ex

“The heart of the city gets a new room.”

Director Sjarel Ex discusses the world’s first public art depot.

You thought up Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen. How did you come up with the idea?

When I started here in 2004 I spent my first hundred days only talking to the people in the museum and not to anybody outside it. They told me about the flooding of the depot in 1999, which for the museum was almost like the disastrous floods of 1953. Flooding happened regularly after that. In my first weeks I also visited the Print Room, which is six metres below ground. Silverfish and woodlice were scuttling around among works by Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. It was a situation the museum was putting up with. I thought, we have to fix the facilities quickly so that the museum can move forward.

Which flood was the last straw, so that you said “this can’t go on any longer”?

The one on 23 June 2015. We had two floods that day. After we’d got the first under control at three in the afternoon, the water streamed into the depot again around five o’clock. Because the pumps were powered by electricity all the rain short-circuited them and one by one they broke down. The fire officer in charge came to me and said “we can lay sandbags in a strategic gangway and then your book collection will be lost and half an hour later the flooding will reach the art collection. What do you want to do?” So I had to choose what I had to let go first and I replied, although I really love books, “just do the books first”. Then one of our young men came up with the idea of going to a dry area in the museum where he plugged in the pumps that had broken down with an enormous extension lead and switched them on. By three in the morning we had things under control. Cycling home at full speed, I screamed and wept and said this can’t go on! There has to be a solution now.

How many floods threatening the collection have you experienced?

Five. People always said to me “have you done another rain dance, son?” The idea for the depot was born out of necessity and also from the belief that the content of the depot should be open to the public; it is an incredible way to provide a human, sensory and physical association with art.

This will soon happen in a spectacular bowl-shape designed by Winy Maas of architects MVRDV. What appealed to you in the design?

It is autonomous. Because the exterior of the building is mirrored, the depot acts as a kind of mirage or hallucination. I think it will be fantastic to see the panorama of the city reflected in the building and it will attract people. The depot will become the centre point of Museumpark. It will be a treasure house containing artworks that have been collected by past generations and we will bring the collection to the next generation. I believe the depot will generate pride. The building is unusual enough to do that.

What kind of atmosphere will the building evoke when you’re inside it?

A working building. A sturdy building with a lot of concrete where people are at work. Making the depot accessible to the public will give visitors a look behind the scenes and an insight into how a museum works and functions. The building will have a very welcoming feel. You will be able take your time looking at the collection, or follow a guide who will show you around the depots and conservation workshops.

How do you think the museum and depot will function together?

They will be totally different in terms of form and content. We will continue to stage exhibitions in the museum; in the depot the public will be able to watch what goes on behind the scenes. The depot is very photogenic and I think it will be the focal point of the street around it with huge energy and lots of social activities. We have already seen the first designs for the square around the depot and they are amazing. I think the heart of the city will gain a room.