Friday 10 October 2014

At the LFF: "The Great Museum/Das Grosse Museum"

Cinematic museum tours are becoming all the rage, doubtless in part as our cultural gatekeepers are worried whether funding cuts will leave these fine and upstanding institutions obsolete within a matter of years: these films are one surefire way of preserving both these buildings and their contents for future generations. Following on from the live events beamed into cinemas from the V&A, Margy Kinmonth's dutiful Hermitage Revealed and Frederick Wiseman's typically statesmanlike National Gallery (itself playing in this year's LFF), Johannes Holzhausen's The Great Museum adopts an eccentrically Austrian tactic, knitting together curious tableaux gathered behind the scenes at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum over the course of a few months in early 2013.

What we get is a tapestry of the cataloguing, indexing and restoration required to keep a museum this vast and all-encompassing functioning. Gallery floors are polished or torn up in preparation for the next exhibition; staff meetings reveal tensions emerging in the relationship between the museum as a brand and the museum as an employer of people and a centre for the community; in one gleefully show-offy early sequence, Holzhausen's Steadicam serenely trails an admin assistant on a child's scooter as he navigates the museum's interlocking offices in order to retrieve a single item from the office photocopier. (Given that an earlier meeting has revealed the museum actually turned a healthy profit in the financial year 2012-13, you do wonder why the beancounters couldn't shill out for a second copier.)

These environs have already been toured once recently, as part of the (fictional) romance of Jem Cohen's excellent Museum Hours, but Holzhausen somehow avoids any overlap. Though he's clearly been schooled in that standoffish, clinical Austrian documentary approach that examines the world while wearing white gloves - the school that has given us Ulrich Seidl (In the Basement, also screening at the LFF), as well as Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread), Michael Glawogger (Workingman's Death) and Hubert Sauper (Darwin's Nightmare) - The Great Museum is far funnier than that might suggest, as rich in banal and bathetic institutional life as the KHM is in diverse artefacts. A blundering elderly donor knocks a vintage hat off a table; a quartet of taxidermists gather at the four corners of a polar bear rug, and wonder where to go next; there's a hunt for moths, a species that might legitimately regard the museum as something of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The film, admittedly, could serve as a rebuke to any funding nabob caught expressing the opinion that institutions such as these run themselves. One overhead shot of hundreds of rusted coins being sorted for display conveys an immediate sense of the hours and days of painstaking labour that goes into filling cabinets the average visitor is likely to spend a mere thirty seconds in front of. Gradually, The Great Museum reveals its seriousness of purpose: from these very detailed anecdotes, we start to get some idea of exactly what it is to be a museum, and to work within a museum, in the 21st century - to have to compete with other institutions for funding and attention, and to have to worry about such trivialities as branding, and its effects on both the public and the collection. Holzhausen allows us to sit in on an amusingly protracted conversation about the harshness of the font in which a number "3" features on the museum's promotional material: it's both a prime instance of committee-room absurdity and the sort of thing museum chiefs presumably lose sleep over nowadays.

What Holzhausen is documenting, ultimately, is responsibility: this place, and these pieces, have been entrusted to these people, and it's they who have to decide how best to exhibit them. What if you do print that number 3 in Verdana rather than Sans-Serif? And what if you hang that painting on the left, rather than on the right? Would that forge an illogical or untrue connection in the mind of the beholder? Could the glaze of marketing dull, obscure, or - worse - damage the treasures it's being applied to? And at what point does renewal - the process of brushing up so keenly observed and illustrated here - start to impact upon the integrity of what was originally there? These are the questions the KHM staff wrestle with every day, and which Holzhausen has presented us with: from its opening moments to a concluding pan over Brueghel's "The Tower of Babel", this smartly curated film keeps the individuals, the treasures and the institution that houses them in clear and equal focus.

The Great Museum screens tomorrow (Sat 11) at 3.30pm at the Islington Vue, and again on Sat 18 at 1pm in NFT2; it opens in selected UK cinemas from December.

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