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Film night at the museum: The allure of the world’s greatest galleries

Directors are being increasingly enticed by the mystery of museums

Film-makers seem intrigued by the secret life of museums. There are a number of recent documentaries about the inner workings of these institutions. Eighty-four-year-old American auteur Frederick Wiseman, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement award at next week’s Venice Film Festival,  has just made a three hour film about London’s National Gallery. Dutch director Oeke Hoogendijk spent a full decade chronicling the multi-million pound renovation of Amsterdam’s celebrated Rijksmuseum for her epic TV series and feature doc, The New Rijksmuseum. Margy Kinmonth’s Hermitage Revealed, which tells the long and tumultuous story of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, will be in British cinemas in early September.

These documentaries follow on from the many feature films that have used museums as a backdrop. Alfred Hitchcock staged a dramatic chase sequence at the end of Blackmail (1929) inside the British Museum. Ron Howard’s film of The Da Vinci Code (2006) begins with conspiracy and murder in the Louvre. Russian director Alexander Sokurov shot his famous one-shot movie Russian  Ark (2002) in the Hermitage. Experimental artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney made part of The Cremaster Cycle in the Guggenheim in New York. You can even see  Cary Grant fiddling with dinosaur bones in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Ben Stiller grappling with a skeletal T.Rex in Night At The Museum (2006).

So what is the fascination? There are obvious reasons why museums attract filmmakers. They are their own mini-universes, with vast support staffs to care for the rare, gorgeous and expensive objects. They are a gateway to the past. They are fought over by sponsors, patrons and politicians. The buildings themselves are vast, mausoleum-like spaces that lend themselves to conspiracy and intrigue.

Wiseman’s new film explores every aspect of the way the National Gallery works. The director’s method is obvious from the first frames – a montage of some stunningly beautiful paintings in the collection next to footage of a cleaner diligently hoovering the gallery floor.

As in other Wiseman documentaries, little in the way of context is provided. The unobtrusive director is somehow able to shoot in every nook of the museum without disturbing the gallery workers or visitors. He shows us restorers touching up old paintings. He shows us frame makers paring wood into elaborate patterns.  He doesn’t have an agenda. He isn’t attacking the elitism of the museum or bemoaning its populism. He doesn’t even give us the names or jobs of the people he films. He simply observes.

Oeke Hoogendijk’s fascinating film about the reconstruction of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam tells an altogether more turbulent story.  Hoogendijk began filming in 2005. Back then, everybody expected that the Netherlands’ most prestigious museum would re-open by 2008, at the latest. Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz had come up with an elegant new design for the enlargement of the building.

All might have gone smoothly had it not been for the Dutch Cyclists’ Union. The design by Cruz and Ortiz required Amsterdam’s bicyclists to make a detour rather than take their usual route underneath the building on a path that was owned by the city, not the museum. They complained vociferously and eventually forced a change of plans and the reconstruction of the museum ground to a halt. 

As it became apparent that the Rijksmuseum wouldn’t re-open until 2013, the institution’s director, Ronald de Leeuw, quit. “At certain moments, I felt it would go on forever. When it (the Museum) opened, I was kind of stunned,” Hoogendijk said. “It was strange to know that this was going to be the end of 10 years (of work.) It was like you have a job and you’re going to stop and quit – or you’ve been fired!”

Hermitage Revealed is being screened as part of the UK-Russia “Year Of Culture,” an event that has been coming under strain as a result of deteriorating relations between the two countries. As its title suggests, the film aims to give audiences an immersive experience – to provide them with privileged access to a museum that houses many of Russia’s greatest treasures and that has had a very colourful history from the time of Catherine The Great to the present day.

In all these documentaries, the filmmakers’ cameras are able to pry into parts of the buildings that are strictly off limits to the public. They show hidden aspects of museum life. That is what makes them so fascinating. At the same time, the films provoke  frustration too – a lingering sense that  the best way really to experience a  museum is still to visit it in person.

‘Hermitage Revealed’ opens on 9 September. ‘National Gallery’  s likely to be released in the UK later in the year