Review: ‘The New Rijksmuseum’ is a Compelling Epic About Culture in Crisis

By  · Published on April 11th, 2014

Films Transit International

On April 13, 2013, Amsterdam’s massive Rijksmuseum finally reopened its doors after hundreds of millions of Euros spent over ten years of construction, renovation, contract disputes, staff resignations and protestations about access for cyclists. The reopening was an unqualified success, with The Economist calling it a “New Golden Age.” That roundabout road to reopening, however, was paved with seemingly endless setbacks and uncertainties, and the troubled renovation risked national embarrassment for The Netherlands.

Watching Oeke Hoogendijk’s sprawling documentary The New Rijksmuseum in its full four-part, four-hour cut, the task at hand often feels like one that may never be completed. And that’s exactly what makes the documentary so engrossing.

The film gives immediate access to the experience of the renovation amongst an epic cast of characters, from museum directors to site caretakers to cycling activists to restoration artists. Often, even from the benefit of the present, it seems that the fruits of such incredibly ambitious labor may never come to pass. The New Rijksmuseum, in other words, gives direct access to how the many people involved in the restoration must have felt at any given moment: their uncertainty, their pessimism, their intermittent joy and their marvel at the trove of artifacts and histories that the museum offers.

But this isn’t simply a documentary about restoring a cumbersome and belligerent piece of architectural tourism. The New Rijksmuseum is about the epic range of meanings attached to a museum and its role within a major world city. How do you properly “restore” a site dedicated to preserving and displaying centuries of culture and history? The New Rijksmuseum details this impossible task, and it’s thrilling.

The documentary shifts from the tension-building activities amongst its many characters to serene meditations on the museum’s artifacts, architecture and construction. The film’s four parts are bookended with wordless displays of the museum’s holdings, including one rather uncanny and breathtaking sequence that shows endless paintings and sculptures hidden away in storage at night during its closing – it’s a bizarre and intimate look behind-the-scenes that pointedly illustrates the stakes of the restoration and the determinative role that museums have in conferring history and meaning onto objects.

The more abundant scenes featuring directors, architects, collections managers, restorers, members of public office and protesters often play out as a thriller for the tea-and-monocle set. Despite the film’s length, these moments of The New Rijksmuseum are cut together at a brisk pace, overlapping crises onto one another through masterful parallel editing that renders the tensions accrued over years immediately present. Hoogendijk’s cameras are seemingly omniscient in their ability to capture a Dickensian range of experiences in the building, funding and debating over the new museum between numerous components of privileged Dutch society.

One sequence cuts between a collection director’s failure to bid enough on a work of modern art via phone and the auction occurring at the other end of that line, thus providing for viewers a cogent sense of the insular world of a state-funded museum while simultaneously giving access to the broader, intensely competitive private art world against which the museum must contend. If you never thought you could scoot to the edge of your seat watching a film about an art museum, The New Rijksmuseum will challenge that assumption for viewers willing to immerse themselves in its epic running time. Dan Brown has got nothing on The New Rijksmuseum.

Breathless debates over the museum’s role in the society of Amsterdam itself threaten to spill over as the Rijksmuseum’s closure becomes more than a delayed and chaotic construction project, and instead a portending sign of The Netherlands’ failure to make an essential national landmark available to its citizenry. We are reminded throughout The New Rijksmuseum that the stakes are less the proper update of a massive tourist attraction, but rather the status of an entire nation’s culture and identity. The film makes fascinating insights into the world of European art culture and its relationship to Western society more broadly, and details the laborious, infinite task of managing a site meant to flawlessly preserve and exhibit an entire national culture.

While the Rijksmuseum’s renovation is a compelling and extraordinary subject in of itself, Hoogendijk and her team of filmmakers succeed by their mastery over pacing, tone and their assembly of events. The New Rijksmuseum’s unencumbered and comprehensive access to the entire restoration process on all tiers has made for a unique, thrilling and detailed document that is equally engrossing and informative, while also beautiful and contemplative.

The Upside: A surprisingly thrilling and rich examination of a massive cultural institution’s re-making

The Downside: The complete film’s four-hour runtime and its exposition-free approach to its subject matter makes accessibility rather prohibitive

On the Side: The New Rijksmuseum’s first two hours were distributed in 2008, before the museum itself saw completion.

The New Rijksmuseum is playing at Portland’s Whitsell Auditorium on April 12 & 13, 2014. Visit the Northwest Film Center for more information.

Related Topics: