Europe’s newest museums showcase the art of repurposing

Helping architectural heritage acquire new life

Museums contain collections of ancient, precious and historical objects. At least that is the common perception of them. Moreover, when we think of museums, we also think of institutions themselves as old and established entities, sorts of fixed and solid elements, which tolerate no alternatives and have turned into cultural monoliths.

After all, the idea is that if you go to Paris you have to visit the Louvre, if you go to Florence you can’t skip the Uffizi, etc. The reality, however, is not as static as it seems, and in fact, new museums are constantly emerging in the cultural market all over the world. And that goes for Europe too, the same place where museums seem so firmly established as iconic symbols.

Let us introduce you to, for example, 3 brand new European museums, which only opened in 2021: The LUMA Arles (France), the Bourse de Commerce (Paris, France) and the Humboldt Forum (Berlin, Germany). Nor are they eccentric collections of small parts. They have the ambition to be important references in the tourist, cultural and intellectual world.

Another thing we find that unites them is the approach to setting up the venues where their exhibitions will be hosted. After all, a museum imprints itself on the visitor’s mind not only by the contents of its collections, but also by the structure that houses them.

New museums, however, do not necessarily mean new buildings. And this corresponds perfectly to the European context of our time. The trends of circularity, waste reduction, repurposing, recycling and reuseg are more than just buzzwords – they are the vehicles charged with carrying out the new direction of development on the continent. Moreover, since it is Europe, there is no shortage of architectural heritage falling into disuse and in need of salvation.

In short, Europeans have a certain obligation towards their heritage and from this stems their need to give it new life. These museums are both reminders of what was and what already is. Reusing and rethinking are the keywords here.

LUMA Arles

Arles was the city in French Provence where Vincent van Gogh spent time and found his greatest inspiration, but also its greatest turmoil – it was there that the infamous ear-cutting incident happened. The Dutch artist is also claimed as the inspiration behind LUMA Arles’ most visible landmark, The Tower designed by the iconic Frank Gehry. It bears the architect’s characteristic stainless steel profile and has already changed the skyline of the city.

While most reviewers and critics have focused on Gehry’s Tower at the expense of its surroundings, it’s actually LUMA Arles’ sprawling campus that requires as much or more consideration. Because this is where the reassignment took root on an area of ​​more than 40,000 m2.

You see, the industrial buildings that make up the campus were part of the rail yards since the 19and century and until 1984 when they closed, bringing in their wake a certain economic dilapidation in the Provençal city. They were then abandoned for a few decades until Swiss art collector and pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann saw value in them and decided to revive them with the help of artists.

The presence of Nature has always seemed essential to me, and therefore the need to bring Nature into the non-vegetated wasteland of the former SNCF railway workshops, was essential, not only to improve the balance between the raw character of the site with a softer presence, but also because I recognize the witty and humorous benefits it can have.

Cultural projects are mainly located in saturated urban environments where going to an exhibition or a cultural center is synonymous with the end of the experience. I like the idea that the park is an extension of the visit where wandering and contemplation add to the pleasure of visiting exhibitions, screenings or live shows. explains Maja Hoffmann, also president of the LUMA Foundation.

When she talks about nature in this context, she is referring to the way the local biotope of the Camargue has harmoniously integrated into the industrial wasteland.

Nature has been rented within the Parc des Ateliers campus of LUMA Arles. Source: LUMA Arles, Copyright: Iwan Baan

The place presents itself not only as a museum, but as an interdisciplinary cultural platform as a whole – a thriving ecosystem of people and creative collectives, where they can research, produce and experiment. What can be seen and visited is art and ideas in progress. In that sense, Gehry’s Tower is just a signpost to where good things happen.

Trade Exchange

Paris is certainly a city that does not lack museums, but it is also a city that prides itself on having the references to lead the cultural front. In this sense, there is always room to rethink and add even without the need to rebuild.

This is how the idea was born, a few years ago, of giving new life to the circular building of the 18th century Stock Exchange, originally used as a place for trading cereals. She is meant to be a 50 year lease between the Municipality of Paris and the French billionaire François Pinault.

Mr. Pinault (a prolific art collector and father-in-law of Hollywood actress Salma Hayek) hired Japanese architect Tadao Ando to transform the former exchange near the Center Pompidou into a sprawling contemporary art space – including a 300-seat underground auditorium, a projection room and a very chic restaurant run by father and son Michel and Sébastien Bras. The museum opened in May last year with the intention of hosting 10 exhibitions a year.

Ando designed a 30-foot-tall concrete cylinder as the centerpiece of the museum and provided galleries on the sides. The redesign includes 32,000 square feet of gallery space over three floors and an underground auditorium. Essentially, this created a building within a building effect and reimagined the interior of the domed interchange without disrupting its neoclassical exterior.

Trade Exchange

A view of the redesigned interior of the Bourse de Commerce with the concrete cylinder by Tadao Ando. Source: Facebook Trading Exchange

When asked why he chose a heritage building to house his huge collection of modern art, he explained: “It already has its history, its location in Paris and above all, there is this very imposing 18th and 19thandarchitecture of past centuries, this extraordinary dome. This is why I wanted this architecture of the past to be restored with great care, respecting what was done a century or two ago. And Tadao Ando’s 21st Century Architecture intervention shows how the good quality old architecture of the past can live in harmony with the bold architecture of the 21st Century. It’s life that goes on, in a way.


The case of the Humboldt Forum, which is the generic name of the building housing the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Arts, presents another interesting, if somewhat controversial, approach to the idea of ​​rethinking architectural heritage.

The current building is not old at all. In fact, it was built between 2013 and 2020 as a copy of the former Prussian (later Imperial) royal palace. The original building, which itself had undergone various transformations, served as the residence of the German emperors until the deposition of the monarchy at the end of the First World War. It was then turned into a museum. It suffered heavy damage during the bombings of World War II and with the establishment of the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic, the decision was made to demolish it in 1950.

The regime then decided to erect the so-called Palace of the Republic in its place, which served as East Germany’s parliament from 1976 to 1990. The reunification of the country then meant once again reconsidering which had been left as an architectural legacy from the old era. The Palace of the Republic itself was demolished between 2006 and 2009 and replaced by a park.

This, however, left a gaping hole and imbalance in the outline of Berlin’s Museum Island in the heart of the city. There was a lot of debate going on about what should be done with the space with different groups pushing for different outcomes. In the end, the decision to restore the Royal Palace as the Humboldt Forum (to honor the German brothers, who were the most renowned explorers and naturalists) as the home of a museum prevailed.

The building’s resurrection, however, was not intended to glorify the past and German leadership. Italian architect Franco Stella reconstructed the Baroque facades on three of the walls but kept the eastern one as a modernist interpretation. Still, controversy has been sparked by the decision to fill the museum with non-European artefacts, harking back to Germany’s colonial past.


Forum Humboldt displaying its north and east facades, made in different styles. Source: Humboldt Forum Foundation at Berlin Palace / Photo: Alexander Schippel

For Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the museum, however, the importance of the site itself and its place in history should not be overlooked.

He declares: “Remembering the history of the place is a central task with a focus on the Royal Palace, the Palace of the Republic and the Humboldt Forum itself. Because in a few years you will have to explain why things happened the way they did and what the terms and conditions were. Throughout the building you will find traces of the history of the place. But remembrance cannot be limited to symbolic actions, such as simply displaying a piece of each building. We do that too, but it’s also about actively dealing with history.


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