The Great Museum examines the daily operations of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna with strikingly similar tactics as Fredrick Wiseman’s National Gallery. Both should be understood as complementary works that forgo talking heads or voiceover exposition in favor of locating a peculiar quietness that resides within the quotidian upkeep of centuries of European artworks, rendered through direct-cinema aesthetics. In that sense, it’s fascinating to compare how closely director Johannes Holzhausen and Wiseman’s interests overlap, since The Great Museum doesn’t restrict its perspective simply to the visible workings of a museum visitor, but traverses behind-the-scenes discussions of budgetary constraints, intimate moments of gallery prep, and seemingly spontaneous discussions about the aims of an upcoming exhibit, where “the whole world of France in the 16th-century will be shown.” In both films, long-winded discussions of museum procedure are juxtaposed with janitorial and construction work, as if the labor of buffering a tile floor or swinging a pickaxe during remodeling were comparable or antithetical acts to the creation of art.
Both films are keen on reveling in the tedium that’s inherent to the museum space, where silence and soft-footed movements, even behind the scenes, are the norm. Wiseman’s nearly three-hour opus additionally locates slowness in the artworks themselves through sequences of mute close-ups, something The Great Museum largely forgoes. Holzhausen is, however, equally attuned to the curatorial stakes within the Kunsthistorisches, and how the scope of art is necessarily dictated by the individuals who manage and preserve the works at various levels. In other words, there’s less a top-down explication of managerial organization than a fluid, even patchwork feel of the multitude of types, both cerebral and tactile, that brings art into being. Focus is as equally on the touch-up artist who delicately preps a statue of a young child for display as it is conservators, art historians, and guest-services members, all of whom dutifully contribute to a seamless presentation of an era passed, but also an era preserved.
While these themes are present and palpable throughout, The Great Museum nevertheless has difficulty rendering much of the proceedings in a cinematic manner that transcends its programmatic functionality. Holzhausen enjoys lingering on a group of delivery men hacking their way into bubble wrap with box cutters or glimpsing large pieces of plastic being laid overtop a priceless painting. Because of this, the film’s focus on procedure can come at the expense of significance, which one gets an even sharper impression of as the purpose of successive boardroom discussions and press conferences begin to blur into one another, with only the specific discussions themselves distinguishing one from the next. In spite of these shortcomings, a standout sequence involves a Steadicam shot that follows an employee riding a scooter around the museum’s kitchen area, which serves as a direct allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Kunsthistorisches Museum, it seems, is haunted, but not necessarily by sins of the past; instead, its ghostliness derives from an identity crisis, where digitization threatens to eradicate the gallery space. Although a computer is only shown once, there’s an implicit apprehension that death looms not just from the art pieces on the walls, but perhaps for the very concept of a museum as socio-cultural necessity.