One of the world’s great art museums gets an observational docu nearly as all-enveloping and elegant as the establishment itself: Johannes Holzhausen’s “The Great Museum” treats Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum with informed reverence, following curators and conservators, administrators and marketers in a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the stately grande dame functions. Tied to the reopening of the famed Kunstkammer rooms in 2013, the docu presents a massive institution whose job of preserving, displaying and contextualizing the past needs constant updating to engage modern audiences intimidated by what’s “old.” Although cinematic, “Museum” is likely destined for smallscreen play on culture channels.
A crane shot establishes the size and majesty of the building, opened in 1891 as a testament to the (generally) refined taste of the Hapsburg monarchs. Its sumptuous interior has fortunately resisted the European vogue for minimalist museum design, and the wall colors remain warm and rich, even in the newly reinstalled Kunstkammer rooms: While the cases are new and Olafur Eliasson was commissioned to design the modern chandeliers, the building and the objects haven’t been betrayed by fashion.
Holzhausen’s training as an art historian helped him gain the trust of not only general director Sabina Haag, but also curators and conservators, and he was given extraordinary access to moments like the reassembly of the Cellini Salt Cellar, and the rehanging of the 16th-century Italian paintings gallery. He has the eye of a witty connoisseur, evident from the start when various staff members are seen sweeping the floors, brushing dust off the inner thigh of Canova’s “Theseus,” cleaning a polar bearskin rug, or taking a pickaxe to a wooden floor (for the new installation).
There are no interviews, thankfully no voiceovers, and no music; Holzhausen respects the viewer’s intelligence, just as he respects the museum staff. Instead, audiences are treated to a minute inspection of painting surfaces in search of beetles; tense budget meetings; Count Czernin donating his father’s splendid ceremonial Imperial Chamberlain uniform. Throughout, there’s a realization of the privilege of working with these objects, of the rarefied yet vital role the staff plays in the preservation of the world’s cultural heritage.
Also running though the docu is the inescapable presence of the Hapsburgs, concretized by the recurring presence of a painting of Maria Theresa and her sons restored at the museum and returned to the Austrian president’s offices. The marketing people know that emphasizing the imperial past has a romanticism that brings in Euros, while others seem to consider such connections antiquated and ponderous. Yet the museum’s incomparable collections, not to mention Vienna’s grandeur, owe their existence to the Hapsburg legacy, and fortunately Haag and her predecessors understand that contextualizing the holdings is a vital part of their role.
Shooting lasted through 2012 and into 2013, allowing Holzhausen and his cameras to become commonplace enough around the museum to not disconcert people unused to having their conversations recorded. Viewers familiar with the collections will be thrilled to see favorite works, yet even those who’ve never been can enjoy the armchair-tourist experience thanks to delightful vistas and unexpected juxtapositions.