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For Your Consideration: 'The New Rijksmuseum'

Anyone can build a new museum. Only a few cities have a grand old museum like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. So the decision by that institution to gut its historic building in favor of a modern, updated interior redesign seemed like a sort of insanity when the plan was undertaken over a decade ago. Het Nieuwe Rijksmuseum, a sprawling documentary by Oeke Hoogendijk, follows the project as it runs off the rails, bogged down in endless difficulties and cost overruns, and finally comes through the other side. Along the way, just about everyone involved has second thoughts, including the museum's director, Ronald de Leeuw, who decides to retire to Vienna when he does not get his way. By the end it is not at all clear if it was worth depriving the city (and the world) of the museum's celebrated collection for ten years, but it is certainly clear that the museum occupies a central position in the hearts of everyone involved.

Hoogendijk does not take sides, although exasperating positions are taken by the cyclists who want to keep the bike passage through the museum open just as it was; by egotistical directors pushing their choices over those of their more-informed curators; by the architects, Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz, who do not want to bend to voices raised against their plan. Wim Pijbes, who takes over as the museum's director after de Leeuw's departure, even comes off as surprisingly sympathetic. The range of interests in play is dizzying in scope, even after this originally four-hour film has been cut down to just over two hours. Many of them are not taken into account until it is too late to resolve them, after the art has been stored away in a warehouse and huge mechanical equipment is tearing into walls and floors. Having not been in this museum since the 1990s myself, I found it painful to watch.

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For anyone who enjoys looking at art in museums, the film's best moments are those documenting the work that goes into making a museum experience what it is. Most people strolling through a museum have no idea how much thought goes into how the works are acquired and presented, the way that curators make statements about the art in their care by how they place them. We get a glimpse into what the Rococo specialist wants to bring to life in the display of an 18th-century French room; the delight the medieval specialist takes in rediscovering a delicately carved elk antler that has lain undisplayed in the warehouse for decades; the care taken by the Japanese specialist to acquire and show an imposing pair of temple guardian statues (like those familiar to Washingtonians in the Sackler Gallery); the heartbreak behind not being able to acquire a seminal painting by contemporary Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven for the museum. The redesign, incredibly, involves a reduction of the available display space, and the painstaking decision of what not to show in the new Rijksmuseum is in itself a mini-seminar in museology.

This film is now playing, at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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