“THE GREAT MUSEUM” (“Das Grosse Museum”)
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Kunsthistorisches Museum (literally translated as ‘Museum of Art History’) in Vienna was opened in 1891 by Franz Joseph I in order to find a grand home for the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection. “The Great Museum” is an unprecedented look at what makes one of the largest museums in the world work and it touches on everything from restoration and visitor services to font choices for marketing materials and budget wrangling. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is home to masterpieces by Raphael, Rubens and Vermeer, as well as extensive collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, arms and armor, and musical instruments. Director Johannes Holzhausen, an art historian, was given seemingly unrestricted access to the museum’s myriad of different departments during 2012 and 2013.
The film begins as the museum is preparing to close for a 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. They break up flooring, remove wallpaper and re-plaster. The director of the museum, 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, noting that the British Museum cannot match the Kunsthistorisches Museum for exhibition spaces with a history so closely related to the works they contain.
The film is both a fond and scathing documentary. Along with his camera crew, Holzhausen went behind the scenes to explore one of Vienna’s (and the world’s) leading museums, which manages the cultural legacy of the Habsburg dynasty. It is a difficult legacy, says one of the participants. How can one present this art, largely produced to assert and reinforce the power of the Habsburg dynasty (one of the most important royal houses in Europe from the 11th through the 18th centuries), in a contemporary way? How can it help inspire people today? The cautious response of one museum employee—“Well, the glass cabinets are modern”—points to a real problem.
The Vienna museum complex is not only a site devoted to preserving the past, it is also a business enterprise. It stands in competition with other museums and cultural institutions around the world yet it is subject to a rigid finance plan and has undergone budget cuts.
The workers who are greatly dedicated and they ensure that works of art are available to the public day after day. Again and again, Holzhausen shows artwork in the hands of employees in the process of transportation, examination or restoration. The existence of such works is entirely dependent on the careful attention and respect paid by these workers.
We learn that the priority was the custody and maintenance of the objects for future generations. This was the thinking that lay behind the museums founded in the 19th century. Since the 1990s, museums have increasingly had to fall into line with the priorities dictated by neoliberal economics.
Until the mid-1990s, Austrian museums were subsidized by the state. Then they were converted into institutions competing on the free market with a basic grant from the state. This grant has not been increased since then, meaning that the museums have to generate more and more income. Holzhausen stripped away the gilded veneer of this Viennese museum to show how it works.
The film shows the opulent galleries, empty save for the cleaning staff, who are removing every last speck of dirt while in adjacent rooms, workers tear off plaster and dig up floors readying the rooms for a total redesign. Then we see the directors of the museum, planning the new advertising and logos, attempting to buy new artworks and organizing events or photo opportunities with government ministers upon whose subsidies the museum depends. Every aspect of what it takes to establish and run a major museum is given a brief spotlight, collecting a series of small episodes within the context of this major project.
These day-to-day activities are captured using the approach of direct cinema. By presenting things as they happen without any framing or bias allows the events to just be without interference. Whether the viewer enjoys the film or not depends upon his/her appreciation for direct cinema or an acceptance of non-narrative driven film. The images are the real strength here, with Holzhausen’s background in art history suiting the subject matter perfectly. There really are some incredibly well framed shots and intricate moves that show the director’s familiarity with the camera and an ability to provoke an emotion or a thought through interesting framing or a smooth dolly shot. There is something wonderfully fascinating about being invited behind the scenes of a particular world to see what makes it tick, to see the lives of people whom were previously unknown yet whose work can be witnessed in all its lavish glory.