Sydney Film Festival Review: The Great Museum (Austria, 2014)


In Vienna resides the Kunsthistoriches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts), a jewel in the city’s crown and home to thousands of paintings, sculptures and artefacts from all over the globe. The Great Museum follows the preparation for the opening of the Kunstkammer Gallery – a specialty gallery devoted to thousands of artefacts collected by Habsburg emperors and archdukes over the centuries. The Habsburg emperors were passionate about collecting valuable pieces, and in The Great Museum, we are treated to an up-close look at the restoration and preservation of these incredible items.

The Great Museum is a great ‘back-door’ look at the museum itself – the beautiful works of art, the grand halls, and the restorative processes – all are fascinating, and any art and history buff will enjoy an up-close look at the museum’s collection. Unfortunately, The Great Museum spends too much time trying to show off the Museum’s collection and not enough time profiling different items or showing the work dynamic inside the museum’s halls.

The documentary is at its strongest in a couple key moments: firstly, museum warden Tatjana Hatzl, in a staff meeting, basically begs the powers that be to let her and her colleagues mingle with the curators and other ‘higher up’ employees. She implores the museum’s directors to treat them the same, to make everyone in the museum one big team, instead of keeping all different departments sectioned off. This glimpse into staff dynamics is an interesting one and it’s jarring against the constant lauding of the museum and its artefacts; one wonders if this is done on purpose by director Johannes Holzhausen to demonstrate that despite all the beauty and splendour, the museum is just like any other workplace. If so, there’s not nearly enough of this exploration, and it just left me craving more insight into that aspect of life at the Kunsthistoriches.

Another moment, when the museum’s general director and financial officers are discussing the museum’s 2013 budget, gives us an idea at the staggering amount of money that museums make and spend over the course of a year. This insight into the financial side of the Kunsthistoriches explores the harsh truth that museums aren’t just a home for expensive and ancient artefacts, but they’re fully fledged businesses that must constantly be reinvented and revamped to keep up with competitors.

The stars of the show are the paintings and artefacts, and these are beautifully shot by cinematographers Joerg Burger and Attila Boa. The camera lingers on them, showing us detailed close ups of paintings, ancient books, sculptures and mediaeval puppets: these shots are a treat, and make it seem like you’re in Vienna, in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, staring that these beautiful works of art. That is what makes The Great Museum worth watching, and gives us a glimpse into the long restorative processes necessary to keep those snippets of history alive.


The Great Museum screens at Sydney Film Festival today and tomorrow – the 7th and the 8th of June. More details and tickets can be found on the film’s official SFF webpage HERE.


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