Museo Guggenheim Bilbao: A Catalyst for Change

Nicholas Mathis is a student at Virginia Military Institute and an ISA Featured Blogger. Nicholas is currently studying abroad with ISA in Bilbao, Spain.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

It’s hard to talk about Bilbao and not talk about the Guggenheim Museum; the city and the museum are forever fused together in the public perception, and for good reason. The Guggenheim was the center of the city wide revolution in Bilbao that transformed this once industrial shipyard into a tourism powerhouse. The museum is one of the first places I visited while here in Bilbao, and I continue to visit as there are rotating exhibitions. In addition, the museum is located right across the river from my university. I’m lucky enough to be able to see the museum every day on my way to class, and every day when I’m heading home.

The museum opened in 1997, and was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry. When it was finished, the museum received incredible acclaim, and is still the holder of many awards for architecture and culture. Additionally, in its first three years the Guggenheim brought 4 million tourists into the city. It contributed to the complete renovation of Bilbao into the city that it is today, a huge change from the center of iron working and industry in the 1900’s. To me, it’s an incredible beacon of change and cultural beauty here in the city; it’s a symbol of Basque and world pride. I love the design and also the works of art inside. The exhibits I have seen range from gigantic slabs of iron (a tribute to the Bilbao of the past), surrealist strips of canvas, videos and paintings.

Walking to the Guggenheim, you are immediately struck by the ubiquity of the building. It seems like you can see the museum from everywhere in the city, and in a way you can. Images of the Guggenheim are everywhere, and there are often posters for cultural activities, fiestas, and other gatherings in the building. Getting closer to the entrance, you begin to see just how huge the building is. From far away it seems almost plain, blending into the urban sprawl neatly and seamlessly. But as you approach the front doors you get a sense of just how much of a behemoth the structure really is. It takes up an impressive waterfront space and has breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, the University of Deusto, and the river.

Outside, the first two works of art are the (possibly most famous), Puppy by Jeff Koons and the also gigantic Maman by Louise Bourgeois. Puppy is always covered in flowers from paws to ears, and Maman is a frighteningly grotesque spider made out of metal. From these first two works, you begin to realize that the Guggenheim is different on a cosmic scale. To me, it stands apart from every other museum in countless ways; the works are breathtaking, and seem to jump right out at you. They make you feel miniscule and force you to appreciate their beauty.

This feeling continues as you enter the front door and purchase your tickets (available from receptionists who speak countless languages). Walking into the main atrium, you can look up to see all the floors of the museum towering above you. You feel ant-like looking up into the vast space, and even more so as you look around. The exhibits are in large open rooms which lend an easy, comfortable air to walking around. Even the elevators are huge; everything in the museum is done on a scale that seems more made for giants. The plaques next to the art work look tiny in comparison, but to me it’s all part of the charm of the museum. It’s meant to be huge, impressive, and breathtaking – and it is.

It almost seems mandatory to visit the site that gave birth to the revolution of this city, and put it on the map for tourism. My only advice when walking around is to keep your eyes and ears open. Take in all there is to see, and listen for all the different languages around you. The Guggenheim sees visitors from all over the world, and I’m willing to bet you’ll be amazed by the sheer diversity located within such a small space.

2 thoughts

  1. Just a short comment: I know it’s easy to generalize, and it’s true that Bilbao has undergone a Guggenheim effect after its opening in 1997, that though unexpected, has developed the tourist sector, but the change of the city started out not because of the Museum… and this means that the origin and the reason for the change of Bilbao should not be found in the Museum but, already in 1992, when the the association Bilbao Metropoli 30 presented a very ambitious master plan for the change of the Metropolitan Area of Bilbao that is not yet finished
    and the Guggenheim is just a project among all of the projects of the plan. Just check this website out:

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