After 10 years and nearly $500 million in renovations, Amsterdam’s crown jewel of an art museum, the Rijksmuseum, finally reopened in April 2013. Oeke Hoogendijk’s oft-riveting documentary The New Rijksmuseum observes the controversial project’s budget deliberations, changing of the guards, and permit issues, as museum officials and Dutch citizens grew weary of the hampered enterprise. As one official puts it, “The technical possibilities we have allows us to find solutions that were impossible to conceive at the end of the 19th century,” but idealism and innumerable unanticipated battles amounted to a national headache and international embarrassment.
In the vein of Frederick Wiseman, The New Rijksmuseum is an epic fly-on-the-wall investigation of a prominent institution. Despite its four-hour running time, the doc efficiently condenses its decade-long timeline, placing the audience in the midst of democratized backroom verbal brawls as if they were another administrator or civilian offering an opinion on how the museum should be realized. Part one of the two-part doc is full of foreboding and stagnation, unpacking the problematic ideological divide that grows as the Dutch publicly resist change and reinvention (spearheaded by protests from the Dutch Cyclists Union), while part two begins with the seating of Wim Pijbes, a rather foppish and charming smooth-talker with a low tolerance for equivocation, as the museum’s new director after Ronald de Leeuw resigns and moves to Austria. Hoogendijk’s focus then shifts from an aura of anxiety to disillusionment; as everyone involved in the reconstruction appears crestfallen, The New Rijksmuseum most potently strikes the tone of an elegy, pensively observing that beneath the bickering in museum boardrooms lies a massive treasure trove of art history that’s being kept from the public’s eye.
Similar to the common complaint noted by the Rijksmuseum’s persnickety administration, there remains too many artists in the workroom, and The New Rijksmuseum occasionally gets distracted with a few individuals who may be worthy of their own documentary, but feel extraneous in this tale of hard hats and zoning hardships. Namely, the starry-eyed obsessive curator of the Asian Pavilion who’s elated by the acquisition of two ancient Japanese temple guard sculptures. He’s meant to be a stand-in for the idealistic art appreciator, and yet his presence feels incongruous, at times stalling this documentary (the same goes for the eccentric, yet underserved warden of the Rijksmuseum). Pijbes incidentally sums up the film’s exhausted and occasionally anti-public thesis with a sigh: “I’ve spent more time on cyclists than on Rembrandt. This is my fate.”
Given the absurdly long bureaucratic process of procedural steps, it only seems proper that The New Rijksmuseum possesses a sly sense of European humor regarding the delays, amounting to moments that seem like they’re out of a comedy of errors. While still the director, de Leeuw can’t recall the new date they’ve settled on for reopening (“Is it fall 2010, or is it spring 2010?”), and much later in the film, after a conflict in opinion with French designers over whether there are too many rooms painted black, Pijbes utters, “Just slap on the paint.” As the documentary draws to a close and the new Rijksmuseum is ready to open, there are exaltations of the art museum’s magnificence voiced by those who just dealt with a 10-year ulcer, but Hoogendijk doesn’t entirely justify this quick switch, as only minor attention is given to exploring the finished space. However, when the art—among them multiple Rembrandts and Vermeers—finally arrives to be displayed in a swirling-violin scored montage, a certain satisfied euphoria sets in, like illustrious guests showing up to a party that took ages to plan.