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The Hermitage Revealed and The Great Museum – ‘The Exhibitionists’ series at Dochouse

Sunday 10 May 2015, by Judy Harris

‘The Exhibitionists’ is a collection of films about collections. The series brings together four cinematic portraits of European museums; the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna, the National Gallery in London, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and The Hermitage in St Petersberg. Each film explores a treasure trove of paintings, trinkets and costumes from various princely collections. These gilded objects are fetishised, protected and adored; their value to the nation-state is taken to be implicit. Unfortunately both The Great Museum and Hermitage Revealed under explore the imperialist history of these objects - according to the director of The Hermitage, now the collection is owned by the state we’re all free to enjoy golden vases and Tsarist tea sets. However, the magnificence of the collection is so enticing that even the Bolsheviks sent a revolutionary guard to protect it (though such a vast accumulation of wealth was also intended to serve as a condemnation of the Tsarist autocracy who petted golden parrots while Russian peasants starved). The Hermitage Revealed and The Great Museum are fascinating, if flawed, explorations of a range of intriguing subjects, raising issues about the value of art, the role of cultural institutions (and their staffing structures and working conditions) and attempts to update various marketing and branding strategies to fit the 21st century tourist industry- all the while displaying a plethora of magestic and whimsical paraphernalia.

These silent items are undeniably captivating, especially when viewed en masse as an eclectic assemblage of sculptures, broaches, paintings and crowns. In The Great Museum the camera wanders aimlessly and somewhat haphazardly through rooms and corridors without commentary. We see meetings, workshops, pigments and primers and several deferential white gloved hands. However, much like the mute objects they house, these museums retain an esoteric air. Silent shots of scaffolding, empty corridors and abandoned ladders only intensify the cabbalistic atmosphere of these stately pleasure-domes. In both films questions regarding the utilitarian value of their collections are raised- at The Hermitage the director recounts the vehement resistance which rose up against Stalin’s decision to sell off parts of the collection to finance his five year plan, including the purchasing of tractors.This issue is then re-articulated at a board meeting in the Kunsthistorisches museum, where directors discuss the impact of European austerity measures which mean museums now compete with health services for government funding.

The effect of screening several films which each depict a vast array of artefacts is that the historic and aesthetic significance of the filmed object becomes customary; in The Great Museum an exquisite block of marble which I was admiring turned out to be a piece of brie, soon spread over a cracker for the curator’s lunch. As a collection of films, The Exhibitionists is an inspired example of film programming and is itself evidence of the enigmatic power of collections.

The Hermitage Revealed, Dir. Margy Kinmonth is showing at the Bertha Dochouse from 24th - 27th May


The Great Museum, Dir. Johannes Holzhausen, is playing at the Bertha Dochouse until May 13th


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