The Great Mu­seum

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Michael Abatemarco

The Great Mu­seum, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, in English and Ger­man with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

If you saw doc­u­men­tar­ian Fred­er­ick Wiseman’s Na­tional Gallery, then The Great Mu­seum might feel like familiar ter­ri­tory. Like Lon­don’s Na­tional Gallery, the Kun­sthis­torisches Mu­seum in Vi­enna is a source of pride for its coun­try, and it is the sub­ject of Jo­hannes Holzhausen’s new film, a Cali­gari Film Award win­ner at the 2014 Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val. The mu­seum was built in 1891 to house the col­lec­tions of the Hab­s­burgs, but a sec­tion had been closed for 10 years be­cause it didn’t meet con­ser­va­tion stan­dards. The film fo­cuses on the grand re­open­ing and treats view­ers to a be­hind-the-scenes look at the mar­ket­ing meet­ings, cu­ra­to­rial de­ci­sions, con­struc­tion, con­ser­va­tion, and ex­hibit in­stal­la­tion us­ing an ap­proach that feels un­scripted. There is no talk­ing to the cam­era, which acts as si­lent par­tic­i­pant, fol­low­ing the staff from room to room. In this re­gard it is sim­i­lar to Na­tional Gallery but, at only half the run time of the other film, The Great Mu­seum benefits from a tighter struc­ture.

At lengthy meet­ings, the mu­seum’s direc­tor and her staff dis­cuss brand­ing, fund­ing, and how best to gen­er­ate public in­ter­est in the up­com­ing ex­hibit. A graph­ics team pro­poses a new de­sign, and a se­nior staff mem­ber re­jects it, nit­pick­ing over the font. Later, se­nior staff mem­bers meet with gallery at­ten­dants to give them an op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss any griev­ances they may have with man­age­ment. One woman voices her con­cern about the ex­clu­siv­ity of the mu­seum’s var­i­ous de­part­ments, stat­ing she’s never been in­tro­duced to any­one out­side of her own depart­ment in the 11 years she’s worked there. Mean­while, a cu­ra­tor who works with the mu­seum’s his­tor­i­cal suits of ar­mor re­tires and is given an emo­tional farewell, em­ploy­ees bid on an item at auc­tion to fill a gap in their col­lec­tion, and a thought­ful worker puts baked brie on a win­dow ledge for a hun­gry raven. It’s an hon­est look at a group of ded­i­cated em­ploy­ees, al­ways con­scious of their limited fund­ing.

The build­ing it­self is a grand marvel. The public spa­ces are or­nate, and far be­low them, dark cor­ri­dors and cav­ernous rooms house paint­ings by Rubens, Rem­brandt, and Car­avag­gio. One staff mem­ber rides a scooter, fol­low­ing the twists and turns of nar­row pas­sages that stretch on and on, just to get to a printer. One sweep­ing view of Tower of Ba­bel (circa 1563) by Pi­eter Bruegel the El­der, a high­light of the col­lec­tion, with its de­pic­tion of a mul­ti­tude of crafts­men rais­ing the tower higher and higher, is un­for­get­table. The scope of the im­pe­rial col­lec­tion is grad­u­ally re­vealed. Ob­jects first glimpsed in a con­ser­va­tion lab are fi­nally pre­sented in stately fash­ion, and the re­sult is breath­tak­ing. But it’s the staff mem­bers who are the film’s real trea­sure, and The Great Mu­seum re­veals the skill and rev­er­ence they hold for the her­itage they are charged with pre­serv­ing.

Be­hind the scenes

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