A fascinating glimpse of the goings-on at one of the grandes dames of Europe’s museum scene, The Great Museum offers a compelling portrait of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
The Art of Display by Laura Bennett
The Great Museum is an unprecedented look at what makes one of the largest museums in the world tick, touching on everything from restoration and visitor services to font choices for marketing materials and budget wrangling. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum was built near the Imperial Palace in 1891 to house the collection of the Habsburg family and is home to masterpieces by Raphael, Rubens and Vermeer, as well as extensive collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, arms and armour, and musical instruments. An art historian by training, documentary director Johannes Holzhausen was given seemingly unrestricted access to the museum’s myriad of different departments during 2012 and 2013. At the time, preparations were also under way for the re-opening of the famous Kunstkammer, a unique collection of precious objects, a “museum within the museum”.
The film opens as the museum is preparing to close for its facelift – paintings are removed from the walls and packed away into storage, sculptures are dusted down in their most intimate areas, and display cases are meticulously wiped. Work begins to renovate the rooms and the contractors move in, breaking up flooring, removing wallpaper and re-plastering. With infectious enthusiasm, the museum’s General Director, Sabine Haag, takes Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, on a tour of the work in progress. MacGregor is clearly impressed by Haag’s vision, complaining that the BM cannot match the Kunsthistorisches Museum for exhibition spaces with a history so closely related to the works they contain.
Beyond the aesthetic concerns of exhibition spaces and layout, The Great Museum is at its best in its microcosmic portrayals of every aspect of the day-to-day running of the museum. Holzhausen’s camera quietly and elegantly observes the intricate and precise work of the museum’s restorers, discussions about re-branding for the re-opening, and tough decisions that need to be made regarding budgetary allocations for the various departments. His direct style of filming, devoid of interviews, off-screen commentary or music, allows the audience to make their own comparisons and contrasts between the different cogs in the great machine that is the museum. These intimate tableaux are interspersed with long undulating takes that follow staff members as they walk (or scoot) through the building’s never-ending galleries, corridors and underground tunnels, bursting at the seams with archive material.
The impression created by The Great Museum is one of a serene, imperial swan whose passionate employees give their all beneath the surface, ensuring the museum and its collections present their best face to art enthusiasts and visitors to the Austrian capital. Its collections and outer shell may be getting on in years, but its facilities need to be as modern as possible, from the gallery lighting to the moth traps installed in the ceilings. Despite receiving state funding, the museum is ultimately a commercial enterprise and its financial administration sometimes struggles to reconcile this with the demands of its collections. One vignette sees Holzhausen’s camera accompany a curator to an auction from which she leaves empty-handed, unable to compete with the bottomless pockets of wealthy private collectors. Another covers the announcement of the sale of 333 newly created facsimile copies of the late eight-century Vienna Coronation Gospels at the bargain price of €29,980 with the aim of swelling the museum’s coffers.
The Great Museum culminates with the long-awaited grand opening, or Eröffnung, following the renovations. Carefully orchestrated, national and international media are in attendance, as is the President of Austria, Heinz Fischer, highlighting the museum’s importance to the nation. Much is riding on the success of the new Kunstkammer; those in charge of the institution’s purse strings hope it will see a rise in visitor numbers and bring in much-needed funds to be spent on projects in other departments. There’s no mistaking the fact that the real star of this film is the Kunsthistorisches Museum itself. It has seen the retirement of countless long-serving staff members, consigned to a file in the underground archives, and re-brands and new openings come and go. In Holzhausen’s words: “a museum is like Noah’s ark, a place where things are preserved and carried across the ocean of time into the present”.
The Great Museum is released in the UK on 12th December 2014