Johannes Holzhausen’s film takes us inside the Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Art History Museum. The film follows the museum’s curators, conservators, workers, upper management and artefacts themselves in the lead-up the reopening of the museum’s Kunstkammer. Ranging in scale from aerial pans of the building in its immense entirety to extreme close-ups of the painstaking conservation work carried out on one painting alone, The Great Museum gives a detailed behind-the-scenes insight into the institution, and manages to remain surprisingly engaging without becoming “visitor’s-guide-to”.
Coming to grips with such an enormous and sprawling institution is a challenge to both the filmmaker and the audience, and Holzhausen does well in documenting the comings and goings of the Museum. His lens moves over paintings, sculptures, budget meetings, retirement parties, and more, taking in the nuances of the museum with a distance that credits the audience with enough intelligence to interpret it themselves.
One of the plot lines, if it can be called that, involves the rebranding of the museum: the senior management have found themselves competing with other institutions and government departments for funding, and need to market the museum. This involves from quibbling over the shape of a number on a poster to renaming certain parts of the building as “Imperial”. At one point, a marketing consultant explains that they need to emphasise how contemporary everything is – while the building and its artefacts may be old, the installations and exhibitions have to seem “contemporary”. Dwarfed by the scale of the building, it sounds absurd to conceive of such a space as “contemporary”. Moreover, these scenes concerning the museum’s bureaucracy initially feel unnecessary and grating, interrupting the grandeur of the space. But that is surely the point – as the museum competes for funding and visitors, it has to reinvent itself, and Holzhausen reveals the delicate ecosystem of the museum and the mechanics of its survival.
Despite this sort of insight and revelation, I couldn’t help but feel there was an inherent inconsistency to Holzhausen’s direction. The film is strongest when Holzhausen simply steps back and lets his subject speak for themselves. The most captivating moments of the film are those in which the audience can behave like a museum visitor – wide shots that take in the entirety of a scene and allow our eyes to wander, taking the time to take it all in. In one shot, a museum worker slowly comes into the frame in a cherry picker as he checks the moth traps in the ceiling – a fairly mundane task, but made elegant by the static camera.
The film is at its weakest when it reverts to the shaky moving shot, following the museum’s director Sabina Haag as she shows the Austrian President around, or shadowing the marketing team as they explain the rebranding decisions. Holzhausen has done well to eschew the use of talking heads – a tired documentary technique that would only have weakened the candid, fly-on-the-wall nature of the work – but I can’t help but feel that he could have gone further, entirely avoiding the shaky moving shot and creating a much more stylish, lyrical film. When he keeps his distance, the museum becomes its own character, moving autonomously around the camera and revealing its own rhythms. When the camera takes on a more spontaneous, on-the-move-feel, it loses some of that elevation, and becomes a run-of-the-mill chronicle much as we have seen before.
There are surprising moments of humour that counterpoint nicely the gravitas of the museum. At one point the camera follows, in Kubrick-esque steadicam (which is much stylistically stronger than the shaky moving shots), an employee as he speeds through stately wood-panelled and book-lined rooms on a razor scooter, to collect something from an inconveniently and distantly placed printer. In another scene, we watch a conservator mime strangling himself in frustration with a particular artefact, chanting “scheisser” under his breath. This is one of the joys of Holzhausen’s film – these moments of absurd irreverence bring us closer to the museum and its employees, giving us a sense of what it might actually be like to work there on a quotidian basis, rather than encountering it as over-awed tourists.