Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of the world’s largest and most renowned art museums. Between 2011 and 2013 documentarian Johannes Holzhausen filmed at the museum capturing the day-to-day activities of the large art institution as it geared up for the reopening of the Kunstkammer collection. Setting himself the rule of not featuring any works of art unless in the context of the museum’s employees’ work Holzhausen avoided gratuitous shots of art in favour of capturing the minutiae of running the museum, managing the staff, and restoring its works of art. The documentary also lacks any narration or score instead relying on the actions and sounds of the museum to speak for themselves.
If this all sounds a little familiar then you might be thinking of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery which is also showing at the festival. The two films are definitely related and share a similar style and rule set but where National Gallery failed to keep me engaged The Great Museum succeeded with flying colours.
While spending some time within the exhibition space of the museum Holzhausen only does so when following members of staff as they show people round or plan out exhibitions. The bulk of the time we spend at the museum is in departmental meetings, which I adore, and deep in the museums archives or restoration studios. In the meetings we witness managers debating the aggressive nature of the number 3 as printed on new promotional material and see how different departments feel isolated from the rest of the staff. In the museum’s archives it is revealed just how much art the museum owns that is not on display. Elsewhere we get a detailed look at just how painstaking the work of restorers is and how passionate they get when things do not go to plan. By the end of the film you feel as though you know the Kunsthistorisches Museum and its people. You know the effort that goes into every detail and the little dramas that take place every day.
While I don’t want to linger too much on Wiseman’s rival film I think that The Great Museum comes out of the comparison well. This film has a more manageable running time of ninety minutes and as such has much less down time and filler. The Great Museum also has a more structured narrative, as much as an observational documentary can, as it follows the preparation of the Kunstkammer from the moment walls are knocked down to reshape the exhibition space to the grand opening of the collection. Finally and most importantly The Great Museum has a much greater variety of personality and roles to explore. We get to see every level of museum staff and how they spend their days; exploring everything from office politics to how pieces are obtained for the museum.
The Great Museum offers a unique perspective behind the scenes of one of the world’s greatest museums. By not including any commentary the audience is allowed to really take in everything we see. The background hum and clatter of the building is all the soundtrack we need. The film allows for subtle moments of humour simply by letting people be themselves in a non-self conscious way. By not asking anyone to speak to the camera Holzhausen allows his subjects to forget the camera is there and behave in an uncensored fashion. In amongst grand works of art people are still human and end up being far more fascinating than any of the artifacts on display.
A fascinating and entertaining documentary which allows its subjects’ personalities to dictate the tone.
The Great Museum has a UK release date of 12th December 2014 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 18th of October 2014.