The iconic M1
The iconic M1. Click image to enlarge

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BMW Museum
BMW Welt

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery:
Munich’s BMW Museum

Munich, Germany – In 1973, a new and very different building opened to the public in Munich, Germany. Dubbed the “Bowl”, the BMW Museum quickly became a landmark, its bowl-shaped structure the work of Viennese architect Karl Schwanzer. It sat alongside the equally impressive and equally new BMW headquarters building, a design of joined towers that gave it its name of the “Four-Cylinder Building”.

But BMW didn’t stand still in the following decades, and it finally became clear that the Bowl was no longer large enough to house the company’s story. So following two and a half years of construction, BMW reopened the Museum on June 19, 2008, now grown to more than 5,000 square metres.

The entrance to the Museum is through the original bowl-shaped building
The entrance to the Museum is through the original bowl-shaped building. Click image to enlarge

The Bowl had become such an integral part of the Munich landscape that there was no question of abandoning or destroying it. Instead, it was retained as a showpiece for temporary exhibits, while a section of the Four-Cylinder Building, previously a conference area, cafeteria and underground garage, was transformed into the new permanent exhibition area. A common area joins them; visitors still enter the entire structure through the Bowl’s doors.

“We had to keep the Bowl, as it is a symbol of the history of BMW,” said Manfred Grunert, historian at the Museum. “We then had to decide what we wanted to tell, and so we tell the corporate story of the BMW brand. We didn’t include the history of Rolls-Royce, Mini or Rover; we wanted to show how we became what we are today.”

What sets the BMW Museum apart from many other corporate museums is that it is focused more on technology than on timelines, and is divided into seven “houses”, each with its own theme: Design, Technology, Model Series, History of the Company, Motorsport, History of the Motorcycle, and the Brand. Beyond this, each “house” is then divided into rooms, such as the Technology House, which is further broken down into engines, lightweight technology and aerodynamics.

The rooms are joined by long hallways, and each room offerings a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come, visible the length of the hall
The rooms are joined by long hallways, and each room offerings a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come, visible the length of the hall. Click image to enlarge

The Museum’s designers also spent a great deal of work on moving visitors between the rooms, and it’s an incredible set-up when you stop and really look at how it’s done. The houses are connected by “roads”, which are actual asphalt pathways, smoothed over and sealed, the idea being that if the cars themselves can’t actually drive on streets within the Museum, then the visitors can do the next best thing. There was also tremendous attention paid to sightlines, and when you are leaving one house and looking down the asphalt road to another, there is always something – a portion of fender, a motorcycle overhead, or a row of cars hanging in mid-air – that is visible in the distance. No matter where you are, there is always a tantalizing glimpse of something up ahead to draw you forward.

And while the Museum is five times as large now as it was before, the exhibits have only doubled in size. Not only does this provide the opportunity to add more in future, but it gives each exhibit a tremendous amount of room; the spaces are airy, nothing is crowded, and there is an open feeling to everything.

Over 8 minutes, the balls resemble a vehicle
Over 8 minutes, the balls resemble a vehicle. Click image to enlarge

From the ticket booth, visitors walk across the asphalt roads, suspended in mid-air, past a huge wall that flashes photographs and videos of vintage BMW vehicles. The first exhibit is a small room behind glass, where 712 silver balls hang on almost invisible wires; over the course of eight minutes, they move in waves and finally arrange themselves in the shape of a car. “It took one day to build, and three weeks to program the computer,” Grunert said.

The floating balls make the visitor aware of two important concepts in the Museum. First, they hang over a glass floor; later on, this floor will be visible as the ceiling of another, with the balls hanging overhead. This is found frequently in the various rooms, where you will look up or down and see something that you have already visited, but from another angle – part of the architect’s plan to view the history as a whole, rather than a timeline.

Secondly, as the balls move, they are accompanied by sound. “There are over 600 speakers in the Museum, all playing sounds,” Grunert said. “Each room has a specific sound, but it’s not music. It’s just sound.” Indeed, there is no way to describe the auditory background; it is simply a collection of various sounds, unobtrusive but adding another layer to the experience.

The first true BMW automobile, the 3 15 PS made from 1929 to 1931
The 328, which in 1940 took the Mille Miglia among many other races
The 328, which in 1940 took the Mille Miglia among many other races. Click image to enlarge

The road takes the visitor to another room, and here is where it all began. The company developed from the Bayerische Flugzeug-Werke in Munich, founded in 1916 to produce aircraft engines. In 1922 it was renamed Bayerische Motoren-Werke, or BMW, manufacturer of airplane, boat and truck engines. The company’s first motorcycle, the R32, appeared in 1923, and one is on display. In 1928 the company acquired the Eisenach Dixi works and built the BMW-Dixi, an Austin Seven built under license. But the car on display is the first that was truly a BMW: a 1929 3/15 PS limousine, a bright red model that had a top speed of 75 km/h.

Following the Second World War, the company built large, luxurious models, but it was the small, inexpensive, egg-shaped Isetta (“A good argument for it was that it was not raining inside,” Grunert said), made under license from its Italian parent, that set the company on solid financial footing. From there, it never looked back.

Among the exhibits are some priceless items from the company’s history, including a 328 that won the Mille Miglia, the Brabham BMW BT 52 Formula 1 racer, and a motorcycle that set a world record in 1937 that stood for 14 years; a few days later, at a toy museum in downtown Munich, I spotted a vintage tin model of it.

The vehicles may be old, but the presentation is ultra-modern, and in many rooms there are displays that look like shelves set into the wall; wave your hand over them, and they reveal themselves to be LED displays that change to new information, so that three or four pages’ worth of photos and text (in German or English) take up only the space of a single page. The most impressive of all is a huge table that fills one room, and tells the BMW story from its very beginning to today, each decade revealing itself with a wave of the hand.

The original museum is bowl-shaped, with a winding mezzanine that leads to the top
The original museum is bowl-shaped, with a winding mezzanine that leads to the top. Click image to enlarge

Having finished my trip through the Museum, I went up into the Bowl; it consists of a winding mezzanine around the wall, leading to a platform at the top. These displays will change, but when I was there, there were several concept cars, including the Concept Coupe, CS1, and the 2001 Gina Light, with a body made of fabric stretched over a lightweight frame.

Even on the Bowl, there is the feeling of speed and movement; videos move across the walls, and there is always sound. “It’s a pity the cars can’t drive in the museum,” Manfred Grunert said. “The car has to stay, so the architecture moves. We use it to tell the historic story of what we are today.”

The Museum is part of BMW Welt, and is open Tuesday through Sunday. It is accessible by numerous city trains, or underground parking is available. Guided tours or group tours are available on request. For more information, visit BMW-Museum.de.

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