The stereotypical art museum, as dreaded by any child whose parents want to inject a bit of culture into their lives, is a series of stuffy halls hung with row upon row of paintings. The stereotypical open-air museum, as dreaded by any teacher who has to keep a horde of unruly 12-year-olds in line there, is a collection of new 'old' buildings filled with people in new 'old' clothes doing everyday tasks in an archaic way. But what happens when you combine the two types into a modern, living art museum?
When he bought the Insel Hombroich, an overgrown park on 25 boggy hectares on the Erft1 in 1982, art collector Karl-Heinrich Müller intended to do exactly that. His vision was of a decentralised museum showing 'art parallel to nature', a fitting home for his eclectic collection. He comissioned the sculptor Erwin Heerich to design pavilions to be scattered around the park, and then, after buying more of the surrounding fields in 1984, called on the landscape architect Bernhard Korte to sculpt the gardens into a gentle, nature-like watermeadow landscape with native trees and flowers. In 1994, the grounds of the formerly NATO-owned 'Raketenstation Kapellen', an old rocket launch base, were added. Müller died in 2007, but the Stiftung Insel Hombroich, an art foundation, continues his vision.
Today, the Stiftung Insel Hombroich owns about 250 hectares2. Much of this is planted with grain, rapeseed, and flowers, but bit by bit, it's being incorporated into the 'Raumortlabor' project, an experimental architecture and landscape development. The heart of the Insel Hombroich, however, is the museum park at its core. Like the pavilions, sculptures, terraces, fountains, and formal gardens are loosely scattered in a landscape that seems otherwise untouched, with meadows, trees, ponds, ditches, and a lazy river arranged informally, with meandering paths. Home to many birds and other animals, grasses and wildflowers, this calm landscape with its pollarded willows and seemingly unregulated watercourses is as much part of the museum as the pavilions showing modern art. Artificial as it may be, the park gives an idea of what the landscape must have looked like before it was totally overrun by humans.
A far cry from the shuttered windows or sickly trees in gravelled courtyards that you'll find in most art museums, these green spaces provide literal breathing room between exhibitions, letting you rest your eyes and your mind on nature before you go back to the art. And, of course, to give the children a place to run around, shout, explore, and generally be active before they have to go back to using their indoor voices...
Just as you're getting tired of walking, you'll round a bend and find another little building, like the follies in an old-fashioned country garden. Most of the pavilions were designed by Erwin Heerich, and house various exhibitions. They're built of the traditional local brick, but on clean, modern lines, plastered white on the inside, with stone floors, steel window frames, wooden doors, and simple, white display stands where necessary. The roofs can be flat or pitched, with most made of glass, some clear, some frosted.
The entrance building, the 'Kassenhaus', has the reception desk and a small shop selling books and postcards. The next building most visitors will encounter is the 'Turm' ('Tower'), a large cube with two of the top corners missing. This has wonderful acoustics, which are often tested by impromptu choirs composed of visitors. The 'Labyrinth' and 'Schnecke' ('Snail') do what it says on the box. The 'Hohe Galerie' ('High Gallery') and 'Zwölf-Räume-Haus' ('Twelve Rooms House') are larger display spaces illuminated, like most of the others, through glass roofs. The 'Orangerie', the first to be built, is the only gallery with windows to the outside. The 'Graubner Pavillon', a glass cylinder intersecting a slightly larger brick cylinder, and the second storey of the 'Tadeusz Pavillon', offer views, but not permanent exhibitions.
Besides the pavilions, there is an old villa, the 'Rosa Haus' ('Pink House'), built in 1816. This was the manor house of the original park, and has been restored, but is not generally used for exhibitions. Two wooden buildings - the 'Scheune' ('Barn') by Erwin Heerich, used for concerts, and the 'Dichterklause', a small wooden hut used as a hermitage by the poet Ludwig Soumage, are also hidden in the depths of the greenery.
Finally, a favourite with visitors young and old is the glass cafeteria in the centre of the park, which offers ample indoor and outdoor seating. The food is simple, regional peasant fare - rye bread to be topped with butter or lard, cheese, sausage, and raw onions, raisin bread, jacket potatoes, hardboiled eggs, pickles, seasonal fruit, and sometimes, streusel cakes - but it's all included in the price of admission. Water is freely available; other drinks can be bought at the counter.
The museum grounds are also home to the studios and living spaces of several artists and to a kindergarten, but these are not accessible to the public.
In the middle of the 'island' is a long, low, wooden house surrounded by sculptures. This house, and the land around it, belong not to the museum but to the artist Anatol3, though the building, land, and sculptures will go to the museum foundation on his death. Anatol uses this space to create and display his art, mostly metal sculptures. You'll find many of his giant 'Wächter' ('Guardians'), simple robot-like soldiers welded from metal plates, marching through the woods surrounding the house. The artist will be working around the yard on most days, and is always willing to chat with visitors.
The building, Anatol's studio, is based on the farmhouse in East Prussia in which he was raised. It was reconstructed through a kind of experimental archaeology - Anatol remembers that the main room's length could be used to play a jumping game a certain number of times, so taught the game to several children and measured how far they jumped. Likewise, the position of the windows is derived from an old memory. He recalls his grandmother leaning in the window to gossip with the neighbours, so had several older ladies of about her stature lean on horizontal beams and report which was most comfortable, then used that for the height of the windowsills.
The Museum Insel Hombroich has a unique conception for its exhibitions. While Karl-Heinrich Müller's collection spans many centuries and includes works by such illustrious names as Paul Cézanne, Lovis Corinth, Yves Klein, Henri Matisse, Rembrandt van Rijn, Kurt Schwitters and Albrecht Dürer, as well as Khmer art, ancient Chinese artifacts, native art from his many travels, and the works of the artists living and working in the park today, these are presented in loose groups, with no chronological order and, especially, without identifying labels! This is to allow visitors to react to the art spontaneously and immediately, without seeing it in the context of its time, or worse, finding it attractive merely because they've heard of the name of the artist.
There is no one piece that accurately describes the collection presented in and around the pavilions, which ranges from archaeological artifacts to canvasses hung up while the paint's still wet, from tiny sketches to huge outdoor sculptures, from fragile vases to furniture carved from tree trunks - whatever struck the collector's fancy!
Planning Your Day Out
The Museum Insel Hombroich is opened year-round4 even on Mondays. Opening hours are from 10.00-19.00 April - September, 10.00-18.00 in October, and 10.00-17.00 November- March. During the summer months, the park is open until 21.00, two hours after the buildings are closed. Be aware that the buildings are relatively small, and the distance between them not insignificant - too long for a mad dash if it's raining and you haven't got a good coat.
A long, open flight of stairs leads from the main entrance to the park proper, but there's an alternate route for wheelchair users. Still, the paths are mostly gravel, which makes it a hassle to use anything with wheels. Rather than drag a pram around, you can borrow a baby carrier at reception. The museum asks visitors to leave large bags in the car, and photography is only allowed without a tripod. Dogs are not permitted in the park, and visitors are requested to stay on the paths and refrain from touching the art, indoors or out, or picking the plants.
The prices might seem rather hefty at 12€/6€ per person5 on weekdays and 15€/7€ per person on weekends and holidays, but the entrance fee6 includes all the lunch you want at the cafeteria pavilion! Admittance is free for children under six. You can also buy a combined day ticket for the Museum Insel Hombroich and the Raketenstation, the old NATO rocket base, which now hosts several artists' studios, seminar buildings, and the Langen Foundation, a private art collection showcased in a building designed by the Japanese star architect Tadao Ando. This combined ticket costs 17€/10€ on weekdays and 20€/11€ on weekends.
Guided tours (in German) take place every 1st Sunday of the month, starting at noon, and cost 5€ per person, or you can call ahead to book a 90-minute tour in German, English, Dutch, Spanish, or sometimes French, which costs 90€ for a group of up to 25 people. The tour guides are all painters or sculptors working closely with the museum. If you want to avoid the guided tours, groups are easy enough to lose in the large park - just explore on your own rather than follow the recommended route if you get there at the same time as a bus trip, and you'll hardly notice they're there, unless it's because all the cake has been gobbled up by hungry grannies by the time you get around to lunch.
The museum is located between the cities of Neuss and Grevenbroich. If you're in possession of a car and the fuel prices haven't skyrocketed again, driving is a convenient option - there is ample parking and the way is well signposted (with the brown signs indicative of places of cultural interest in Germany). Take the Autobahn A57 to the Neuss-Reuschenberg exit or the A46 Aachen-Neuss to the Grevenbroich-Kapellen exit, and follow the signposts from there.
If you're relying on public transportation, take the train to 'Neuss Süd' station and switch to a bus (No 869 or 877 to Grevenbroich) from there to the 'Gut Hombroich' stop - just keep in mind that it's quite a walk from the train station to the museum, and the last bus back leaves well before the park closes in the summer! Unlike most German public transportation, the schedule is erratic, with occasional two-hour gaps, especially on the weekends, so check in advance when the buses will be going and when they'll be going back! Alternately, take your bicycle along in the train and just ride it to the museum from the station, but be aware that you'll have to cycle on the road.
The Museum Insel Hombroich and the Langen Foundation host concerts, poetry readings, special exhibitions, art workshops, and other events throughout the year. You can also rent some of the buildings for your own dinners, business meetings, concerts or parties. But whenever you decide to come, you can find special events of your own, just by wandering around and talking to people. This h2g2 Researcher was presented with a painting by one of the resident artists merely for helping him reset the voicemail and ringtone on his mobile! Whether you live nearby or are just passing through, it's certainly worth a visit - this is no ordinary museum.