Albertina to reopen its collection to scholars—finally

The institution has installed an impressive high-tech robotic system to store and retrieve its holdings of prints and drawings



The world’s first “automated” prints and drawings store is to open later this year at the Albertina, which has one of the finest collections of works on paper. Using the very latest technology, robotic transport will bring a portfolio to the study room in less than 58 seconds. The compact racking system has until now usually been employed for storing automobile parts, pharmaceutical drugs or financial records.

Last month The Art Newspaper was given privileged access to the vault, which is normally off-limits to staff and visitors. The sight is breathtaking: a million works stored in one cavernous hall.

People are rarely admitted to the underground vault, since the movement of works of art is wholly mechanised. Sealing the store enhances security and environmental conditions. Light levels are low, and the atmosphere is kept at a constant 19 degrees centigrade and 50% humidity. The air pressure is made slightly higher than outside, reducing the entry of dust.

The Albertina’s store contains one million prints and 65,000 drawings, putting it on a par with the British Museum and Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett.

It is particularly renowned for its masterpieces by Dürer, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens and Schiele.

Scandalously, the Albertina’s holdings have been almost inaccessible for most of the time since the old study room closed in 1994 and the collection moved to the nearby National Library. Even specialists have sometimes been denied access to individual works, although the situation did improve slightly after the Albertina was reopened in March 2003, following a major refurbishment.

Underground vault

The new store lies 24 metres underground, sealed in a one metre-thick reinforced concrete box. Albertina director Dr Klaus Albrecht Schröder claims that except for a direct nuclear attack on Vienna, the complex should be invulnerable. Although electrical equipment can set off fires, an inert gas system has been installed which would push in huge quantities of oxygen-free air in seconds. The only problem is avoiding false alarms: once the gas is triggered, it costs E80,000 ($99,000) to replace the 200 massive cylinders.

The vault is 35 metres long, nine metres wide and 16 metres high. It contains four lines of racks, from floor to ceiling. These hold 10,000 steel trays, with portfolios or framed drawings stored on them. Ordering is done from a computer, with every portfolio being identified by both a bar code and transponder.

The trays are accessed by two vehicles running along tracks; they first move to the correct place on the ground and then rise up to collect the requested tray. The tray is lowered, transported to the end of the room, and finally raised again, to exit from a window near the study room. The system has been developed by Ecolog Logistiksysteme, of Wels, Austria. If it proves successful, it is likely to be gradually introduced to other print rooms around the world.

Dr Schröder admits that some older curators are suspicious of the new system, fearing alienation from the collection. “They loved to breathe the same air as the Dürers,” he says. Until 1994, most of the works on paper had been stored in the state rooms of the Albertina, an extremely unsatisfactory arrangement. With virtually no fire protection, the entire collection could have been lost in an hour.

The main rationale for an automated storage system is space and costs. Conventional storage would have required around ten times more space, and this would have been impossible on the present site, a former Hapsburg palace in the city centre. Running costs of the new system are much lower, since only one controller is needed to move the works and the absence of staff in the store means that it is much cheaper to maintain environmental conditions.

But after deciding to opt for automated storage, one major technical problem remained to be resolved: the movement of the works had to be almost vibration-free. The answer was to ensure that the railed vehicle was also affixed to the ceiling, powered with separate motors at both the top and bottom. This means that there is less movement than if the works were moved by hand.

Why the delays?

But why has it taken so long to give access to the collection? Initially, it was necessary to await the refurbishment of the Albertina, a much-delayed project only completed three years ago. Although the Albertina has since mounted a series of excellent exhibitions, which have been well-received by the public, this does little to satisfy specialists who want to see particular works. It led to accusations that the Albertina is more concerned with money-generating blockbuster shows than scholarly interest in its collection.

The high-tech underground store was recently completed, and the collection moved in earlier this year, but there is still no study room. The space allocated for the new study room is currently occupied by other staff, who need to be relocated, and the area will then have to be refurbished for scholars.

Until now Dr Schröder has blamed financial reasons for not completing the project, but earlier this year he decided not to wait for further state funding; he would push ahead, by raising the money himself. The total cost of the storage and study room project is E5.1m, of which E1.7m has already been pledged by the state’s Imperial Castle Administration.

When we interviewed Dr Schröder last month, he initially expressed a hope that the study room would open by the end of the year. But as our meeting ended, he received a message saying that American philanthropist Donald Kahn wanted to put up the money to open the study room and additional gallery space. “We now hope to open the study room at the end of October,” Dr Schröder told The Art Newspaper. He later contacted us to say the new display space will be named the “Jeanne and Donald Kahn Galleries.”