Behind the scenes of the great Künsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, as a close pan up Breughal’s Tower of Babel at the end of Das groβe Museum suggests, there are a lot of people doing a lot of work. This is in fact the only moment akin to commentary in this hands-off documentary – without talking heads, voiceover, or music – unless one counts also the gentle puncturing of the traditional sanctity of such grand repositories of fine art scattered through the opening sections: an employee gliding through the narrow passageways of the office/library on a scooter to pick up a photocopy; a workman violating the parquet floor and echoing silence of an empty gallery with a pickaxe; the dusting of the groin of some giant marble Greek dude (it’s Theseus).
With a camera as stately as the museum, and as carefully respectful as the museum workers are towards their objects, director Johannes Holzhausen shows us various aspects of the staff’s work, from bug-trap inspection to fixing the fiendish mechanism of an automaton, consulting with visiting specialists about possible over-painting, or archiving the file of a retired employee. To be expected, there is a meticulous professionalism on display here, and the passages of conservation have a wordless tension that recalls the most celebrated of fictional bank-heist sequences, all steady, careful fingers and held breath. Likewise, a visit to the Dorotheum auction house has its inherent excitement, even if the curators depart empty-handed.
This is apposite, however, for so do we in a similar way. The film’s focus is not on the art contained in the museum, but on those who care for and present it. We see only a fraction of the collection, and most of that denuded of its artistic halo, objects to be examined in their physicality more than appreciated for their powers of spiritual transformation (this is a given). As such, the film makes an uncanny companion piece to its festival confrère, Denis Côté’s Joy Of Man’s Desiring, in that it is the work that is significant, not that which is being worked upon. And if the museum seems like an artisanal sanctuary of serenity and beauty, and the film itself something of a promotional tool, Holzhausen also reveals some of the inevitable discord: a docent’s meeting in which one of their number pleads to be treated not as the lowest level of employee, and be introduced to the other departments; a dead-end budgetary meeting where accounting gently but firmly butts heads with curatorial solipsism; or simply the dullness of reciting the schedule for the president’s signing of the visitor’s book.
The president is coming because this is not quite an everyday look at the museum’s operation, however. The couple of years Holzhausen spent filming were the last of a ten-year program to renovate, restore, and rehang the Künstkammer galleries. Thus much of what we see is concerned with bringing off the reopening, an exceptional occasion in the museum’s history, and one through which it aims to rebrand itself, allowing the museum director and her staff to voice various concerns about how best to appeal to the modern public. Holzhausen has spoken in interview of his dismay at the current state of museum administration, for whom lack of funding necessitates more concern for visitor quotas than for the continuity of custodianship; he also disdains the multiple signage-use of the word “Imperial”, researched as being “particularly attractive to tourists”. Yet there is no disapprobation apparent in the documentary – we are left to wonder for ourselves if this superficial way of attracting visitors is a good thing or not (and it is taken by the museum staff as a fact of life outside of moral, ethical, or cultural value). Likewise, the immense historical, cultural, and political weight of the Hapsburg Empire – it is the collection of their final scions that makes up the Künstkammer – is touched upon a couple of times, but left hanging as the elephant one would rather not ponder. This is no investigation nor, really, a detailed portrait, but a snapshot, albeit handsome and mostly engaging.
Festival’s Film Page: ‘The Great Museum’ (Das groβe Museum)
(Austria, 2014, 95 mins, DCP)
In German, English with English subtitles
Directed By: Johannes Holzhausen
Screenwriters: Johannes Holzhausen, Constantin Wulff
Producer: Johannes Rosenberger
Cinematographers: Attila Boa, Joerg Burger
Editor: Dieter Pichler