The Great Museum review: fly-on-the-wall in Hapsburg heartland

This study of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is as sober and formal as the city’s architecture

The Great Museum
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Director: Johannes Holzhausen
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: N/A
Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins

You have to feel a little sorry for Johannes Holzhausen's study of changes at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery – a continent- sized examination of that London institution – is about to sprawl itself across cinemas.

The Great Museum, inevitably, is going to seem like something of a sketch in comparison. It is, however, a very worthwhile piece of work. Hanging around the reopening of the Kunstkammer rooms in 2013, the film deals with auctions, restorations, promotional campaigns and the geometry of picture hanging.

For the most part, The Great Museum is as sober and formal as the architecture of the Austrian capital. There is no intrusive music. We get no patronising voiceover. Such lack of flash is welcome, but the decision to exclude even captions does leave the role of certain participants in obscurity.

It doesn’t help that – without wishing to be unkind – the Kunsthistorisches does not exactly swell with eccentrics and colourful characters. Hats off to the chap who feeds Brie to the hungry ravens. A few more like him would have been welcome.


Every now and then, Holzhausen’s camera does indulge itself and make some flashy moves. A lengthy tracking shot of a worker on a scooter must have kicked up some logistical nightmares. Sweeps from the ceiling over milling crowds are similarly impressive.

The film is, however, most notable for its rigorous treatment of everyday procedures at a top-flight museum.

Watch as (rather poignantly) staff are consistently outbid by rich Americans at an auction for 19th-century clothing.

Enjoy the efforts to reconcile modern concerns with the museum’s historical connections to the vanished Hapsburg dynasty.

Shudder as one recently retired employee’s career is reduced to a small pile of papers and, with characteristic middle-European efficiency, hidden among a vast, assiduously ordered array of similar files.

None of us shall escape the grim filing clerk in the sky.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist