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Say you bought a moderate fixer-upper. Maybe the kitchen needs to be gutted and a bathroom added, and the landscaping boasts little but drought-brown grass.
Now imagine that the government is handling your renovations. And someone is making a two-plus-hour documentary about its years-long process.
You’d want to watch it—maybe. Do you think others will?
In Oeke Hoogendijk’s The New Rijksmuseum, rebuilding the Netherlands’ national museum in Amsterdam is portrayed as a 10-year head-bash against a wall of red tape. “This city can be a democratic nightmare,” says Wim Pijbes, the project’s second general director. (The first, Ronald De Leeuw, stepped down in 2008 and told Hoogendijk, “I’ve made more room in my life for actual living.”)
Decisions are made; decisions are questioned. Laudable designs come under fire from activists groups. Just as you’re thinking, “This film feels like a city council meeting,” bam: Here’s a city council meeting about the protests from cyclists over the rearrangement of a famed bicycle path that flows between the museum’s divided structure. The architects are forced to brainstorm a new plan, which they deem “vulgar” and “banal.”
And when the design teams, curators, and Big Brother are finally happy and ready to begin rebuilding what has already been torn apart, an aesthetics committee pops up with what feels like a hundred rapid-fire (and justifiable) questions. Its issues halt progress completely.
The New Rijksmuseum is, however, occasionally transfixing instead of eye-glazing. Its first five minutes show bulldozers demolishing the museum’s stripped interior walls under the harsh illumination of work lights; like glimpsing into any empty building that once popped with life and beauty, the effect is haunting.
Another butterfly-inducing scene shows a curator wandering a warehouse lined with sliding walls on which the museum’s works are carefully stored. Glide one out, and art history is within your reach.
Still, the overlords question, even when they get as far as painting the museum. (Marleen Homan, part of the interior architect team, first laughs about them not having a single final drawing after six years of work, then is disappointed as they decide to repaint the sizable structure with colors other than the ones she helped choose.) An impromptu committee even debates while the museum’s pieces are put back on display: Should these guns be centered on the platform, or aligned?
The cyclists even return with new venom, and win again. “Hurray for Amsterdam coolness,” Pijbes says with heavy sarcasm. “Anything goes.”
It’s nearly inevitable that you’ll zone out during the documentary, which is a condensed version of a four-part, four-hour television special that was later presented in its entirety as a film. (Hoogendijk and crew, your original idea was likely the best.) But a loss of concentration can’t be blamed on details of the rebuild or the collection itself: For proof, see Tim’s Vermeer, another art doc that examines a painting, including its execution down to the brushstrokes, and some arcane history, but remains fascinating throughout.
The long-coming blessing of the government and the public may be what The New Rijksmuseum is all about. But it weighs down what should have been an engrossing, privileged peek into the museum’s phoenix moments. It ends, of course, in triumph. But it’s not enough to justify the sit, leaving you feeling in parts like an official does when another wrench is thrown: “I can’t stand it any longer.”
The New Rijksmuseum opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.