A Melange of Art and Nature

Project: Biesbosch Museum Island, Netherlands

Architects: Studio Marco Vermeulen, Rotterdam

In the summer of 2015, the Biesbosch Museum in Netherlands reopened to the public after undergoing an eight-month-long renovation. The museum was completely transformed and extended with a new wing, which opens to its beautiful surroundings and houses a restaurant and temporary exhibition space for contemporary art. The permanent exhibition that explains the historical development of the region was completely revamped as well. A large water model of the Biesbosch and a freshwater tidal park were also planned on the Museum Island. The revamped building, its interiors, water model and freshwater tidal park were designed by Studio Marco Vermeulen, while the exhibition was conceptualised by Studio Joyce Langezaal.

Reasons for Redevelopment

The key reason for the renovation of the Biesbosch Museum Island was water safety.
As part of a national water safety programme, the 4,450-hectare Noordwaard polder was turned into a water-retention area. Outlets on either side of the Biesbosch Museum were then dug to create a new island. For most visitors, the Biesbosch Museum is the starting point for exploring the Biesbosch National Park. The museum, however, was outdated and not equipped to accommodate the growing number of visitors. An adequate catering facility was thus, a particularly pressing need. Moreover, the presentation of the collection needed an overhaul. In 2012, around 35,000 people visited the museum, while in the first three months of its reopening, no fewer than 30,000 people had already visited the complex!

Museum Building

To avoid any unnecessary waste of material or energy, the hexagonal structure of the original Biesbosch Museum pavilions was retained, and a new 1,000 square metre wing was introduced on the southwestern side of the building. Featuring extensive areas of fenestration, this new wing opens to the museum garden on the island. The extension also houses an organic restaurant that offers views of the adjacent waterbody and landscape, and harbours a space for temporary exhibitions.

The existing building houses the permanent exhibition, a library, a multipurpose theatre, an entrance area with reception, and a museum shop. Visitors can obtain information about the Biesbosch National Park and buy tickets for the museum and electric boat rides. The addition of large dormers on the roof created space for the museum’s offices, the Dutch Forestry Commission and the Park Board. The old and new sections of the museum are surrounded by earthworks and covered with a roof of grass and herbs. The roof adds ecological value, creating a sculptural object that reads as land art and, at the same time, manifests itself in the surrounding landscape. A fold in the roof gives way to an adventurous mountain trail and a lookout post.


The redone permanent exhibition offers a rich overview of the history of the Biesbosch, the culture and the collection of the museum. The unique story of the Biesbosch is displayed in seven pavilions, covering its history from the Elizabeth Flood of 1421 to its current status as a recreational area. The residents, economy, crafts and nature are displayed in multimedia spaces. Original film material and photographs, interviews and other tools, present a personal and vivid account of the area and its residents.


Both the new wing and the existing volume are designed to minimise energy consumption. The glass front is fitted with state-of-the-art, heat-resistant glass that eliminates the need for blinds. The earthworks on the northwestern side and the green roof serve as additional insulation and heat buffer. On cold days, a biomass stove maintains the right temperature within the building through floor heating. On warm days, water from the river flows through the same piping to cool the building.

Willow Filter

Sanitary wastewater here is purified through a willow filter—the first in the Netherlands, which is also an acknowledgment of the wicker culture of the Biesbosch. Willows absorb the wastewater and the substances it contains, such as nitrogen and phosphate. These substances act as nutrients and help the willow to grow. The purified water is discharged into the adjacent wetland area, and subsequently, flows from there into the river. Once the willows are sawn and dried, the wood can be used as fuel in the biomass stove in the museum or for other purposes.

Other Specifics

The museum uses many resources available in the area, not only for its energy supply and water treatment but also for the menu in the microbrew restaurant. Moreover, the museum can count on the commitment of dozens of volunteers, many of whom have worked in the Biesbosch in the past. Even most of the contractors and construction workers who were involved in the redevelopment came from the immediate area.

The Biesbosch has a rich history in harvesting and processing natural materials, even before such concepts became popular. The museum therefore, provides spaces for art, preferably made of natural materials from the Biesbosch itself, in the new wing and on the island. Also, midway through the last century, the impressive sturgeon and salmon disappeared from the waters of the Biesbosch. With the opening of the Haringvliet locks and with cleaner water flowing in the river now, the likelihood of a return of these distinctive species has increased. The indoor pond at the restaurant also hints at the return of the sturgeon.

Freshwater Tidal Park

The Museum Island, completed in the spring of 2016, is a freshwater tidal park on the island that receives river water through a newly-dug creek. The tides and seasonal variations in water levels can be clearly experienced, thanks to the gentle slope of the banks along the creek. The slopes also create a rich diversity of flora and fauna, so that every visit to the island is different. A meandering path provides access to the island, which continuously changes in appearance because of the changing water levels.

The Biesbosch Experience

Also realised on the Museum Island in the spring of 2016, the ‘Biesbosch Experience’ is a scale model of the Biesbosch, complete with polders, dikes and streams. It explains the water management function and importance of the area when water levels are high. Within a half-hour cycle, the water changes from ‘extremely low’ to ‘extremely high’. Children and adults are able to alter the course of the water by operating various kinds of locks.

De Pannekoek Open-Air Museum

The open-air museum on the other side of the river features a wood of willows called a ‘griend’, where visitors can step back in time. There’s also a duck decoy, a hut made of willows and reeds, and a beaver lodge.

Photo credit: Ronald Tilleman
Drawing credit: Studio Marco Vermerlen


Program: Museum (with permanent and changing exhibition spaces), offices, visitor centre, library, cinema, museum, and restaurant.

Consultants: Project management and engineering advice – Edion Bouw en Management, Driebergen; Structure – Raadgevend Ingenieursburo van Nunen, Rosmalen and W5A Structures, Waalre; Installations – Overdevest Adviseurs, Den Haag; Building physics and fire prevention – moBius Consult, Driebergen Advice on facilities for people with disabilities – Zet; Interior design – Verberne, Asten and Xylos, Rotterdam

Contractors: Building contractor – Staton Bouw, Werkendam; Electrical contractor – Drabbe, Werkendam; Climate system contractor – WVI, Werkendam. Green roof and outdoor space contractor – Van Helvoirt, Berkel-Enschot

Gross Floor Area: 1,300 sq m

Existing Renovation: 1,000 sq m

Exhibition Floor Area: 900 sq m

Cost of Construction: Approx INR 159 million

Year of Completion: 2015; Museum Garden and Water Playground completed in mid 2016