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Interview with Sjarel Ex

“The heart of the city will gain an extra beat.”

Director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Sjarel Ex, fought for more than ten years to build a new depot. The goal of his mission; to save the art collection from water damage, make it accessible to the public and to preserve it for future generations.

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, It was a disastrous wake-up call for the museum that there was something seriously wrong with the water management system. Flooding happened regularly after that. In my first weeks I also visited the print room, which then was six metres below ground level. Silverfishes were scuttling around among works by Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo. I thought, we have to fix the facilities quickly so that the museum can move forward.

What was the last straw that made you say ‘this can’t go on any longer?’

The two depot floods on 13 October, 2013. After we’d got the first under control at three in the afternoon, the water streamed in 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 ‘just do the books first’. Then we plugged in the pumps that had broken down with an enormous extension lead to sockets on a higher floor. And fortunately they started up! By three in the morning we had things under control. Cycling home, I shouted at the top of my lungs 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 I spoke to about it from outside of the museum 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 connection with art.

The first design for the depot building was in the shape of a table, wasn’t it?

It was. For three thousand euros I got Winy Maas of architects MVRDV to make a drawing so we could visualize how a depot building would look next to our museum. We had the design made in a 1/10 scale model and showed it at KunstRAI in 2007. It stood as an immense table over a tenth of the art fair and we stood underneath it distributing information. The table design broke the ice and started a dialogue about building a depot. It attracted a lot of attention; collectors flocked to it and the NRC newspaper wrote an article about it.

Why did the table design not become the final design?

The City Council didn’t think it was ‘architecture’. Then I produced two variants:  a Fort Knox on the edge of the city with a fence, a guard dog and 24-hour surveillance. A kind of internment centre only accessible to museum staff and nobody else. We had pared the price of it down to the bone. I also There are lots. Firstly, as an organization we will be much better off in terms of finding the objects, operational speed and efficiency. Now we constantly transport the collection in trucks and everything has to be dragged backwards and forwards. Soon we will have everything within easy reach. Secondly, I think we’ll attract 90,000 visitors a year who want to visit the depot, see a particular artwork or take a special guided tour around the building.

You are very active trying to get private collectors to house their collections in the new depot. How’s that going?

Extremely well. Aside from private collectors we are in contact with companies who believe the depot is an excellent facility for accommodating their collections. KPN is the first. I think that the depot will initiate a snowball effect. I’m not worried about renting the spaces. Ten years ago, when I asked collectors if they were interested in accommodating their collections in the depot, one of them said, ‘I’ll be eighty-nine then. I don’t know if I’ll still be alive and I’ve no idea what my children will do with my collection.’ Now the opening is approaching, the question is much more pressing for them, too.

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. I think the heart of the city will gain an extra beat.