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The Great Museum

The Great Museum

This charming film lifts a heavy brocade curtain and blows the dust off its venerable subject, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Director Johannes Holzhausen and his crew were granted privileged access to this magnificent jewel of the art world, which was bestowed upon the people of Austria by Emperor Franz Josef in 1891. Long charged with sheltering the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection, the enormous museum is fittingly and lavishly decorated with marble, gold leaf, and stucco ornamentations. Shot between 2012 and 2013 during the renovation and reinstallation of the museum’s Kunstkammer galleries, the film introduces us to the dedicated people who are entrusted with the administration and upkeep of this major institution. Far from being a dry, eat-your-vegetables kind of documentary, Das Grosse Museum is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the mind.

Eccentricities and obsessions seem to be prerequisites for these museum workers. We get to know a cast of characters from the director to the cleaning staff, from art transporters to curators and historians. Mini-dramas ensue as people go about their daily tasks. One restorer is trying to uncover the history of a Rubens painting; another repairs a fantastic golden model ship. A woman in Customer Service doesn’t feel integrated into the team; the former head of the Armaments department is fêted as he enters retirement. There’s the excitement and frustration of an art auction, budget meetings, and discussions about the right wording and imagery to print on promotional materials. When one historian complains at having to focus on the Habsburgs all the time, he’s reminded that Japanese tourists love them, and that the Austrian old guard is a great marketing tool. Genial General Director Sabine Haag gives tours to political dignitaries, including the president of Austria, and exchanges ideas with Neil MacGregor, the enthusiastic Director of the British Museum.

The film touches on a number of questions: how can a museum achieve balance between the preservation of works and their contemporary presentation? What is art’s role in a nation’s self-representation vis-à-vis politics and tourism? Major museums today must retain their relevance by appealing to a wide international public, and compete with other important institutions for funding. One wonderful scene illustrates how new ways of working can complement the old: a young employee hops on a Razor scooter, winds his way through endless stately galleries, then hops off again at a copy machine. Director Holzhausen’s background is in art history, and his love of his subject is evident. As it maintains a balance between the individual moment and the big story, Das Grosse Museum is absolutely captivating.

Posted on KinoCritics website

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