The documentary THE GREAT MUSEUM is a curious, witty and humorous peek behind the scenes at a world-famous cultural institution. Director Johannes Holzhausen and his team spent more than two years gathering material at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Shot in the attentive style of direct cinema – with no off-screen commentary, no interviews and no background music – the film observes the various processes involved in creating a perfect setting for art. From the managing director to the cleaning services team, from the carriers to the art historians, the staff members at the museum are all interdependent cogs in the same machine.
The film offers glimpses of the day-to-day routine at the museum, but focuses primarily on micro-dramas featuring museum employees. For example, a conservator who discovers that a Rubens painting has been painted over several times; another conservator who expresses his despair in mending a model battleship with a few expletives; a member of the guest services team who feels her team is not well integrated at the museum; an elderly head of a collection who is about to head into retirement; an art historian who experiences the thrill and frustration of an auction, and the chief financial officer who thinks the “3” on the new promotional material looks “aggressive”. All this makes the film more than a portrait of a public cultural institution trying to maintain its integrity by balancing between budgetary issues and competitive pressure. THE GREAT MUSEUM also addresses more profound issues: Is it possible to reconcile the conservation of the objects with an up-to-date presentation? What part does art play in the representation of national identity in politics and tourism?
Documentary filmmaker Johannes Holzhausen carefully balances single moments and the overall narration, reproducing the style that has distinguished his previous films. The precise camera work (Joerg Burger, Attila Boa) and poignant editing (Dieter Pichler) serve to create the atmosphere of patient observation and reflection, just as the film’s protagonists are in the service of an institution that will outlast them. And in this sense THE GREAT MUSEUM is also a film about temporality and transience. It relates the museum’s everyday business to its long tradition, which dates back to the Habsburg Monarchy, and the timelessness of art objects.
– synopsis from official website
A look behind the scenes of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It’s a pleasure to follow the camera on its extended forays through the magnificent halls and well-stocked storage rooms, listening in on the exhibition curators and lingering with interest by the restorers. All those working in the midst of these artistic treasures and portraits are almost on first-name terms with them and their Habsburg benefactors; for some, this stately heritage feels like a ball and chain.
Fulfilling a museum’s lofty duties in the modern day – collection, preservation, research, exhibition and communication – requires good management. As some examine paintings almost tenderly for insect damage, countless meetings revolve around budget planning, marketing campaigns and visits from politicians. The film observes this balancing act between maintaining a time-honoured institution of memory and offering modern cultural services without casting judgement. Only the now retired director of the Collection of Arms and Armour can permit himself to remark that all that smooth marketing talk could equally be applied to toothpaste. And then he feeds brie and walnuts to the pigeons on his office window sill.
– synopsis from Berlinale website