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

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy