The Great Museum
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