On April 13, 2013, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum re-opened after a restoration, renovation, and remodeling project that ran years over schedule and hundreds of millions of euros over budget. Documentarian Oeke Hoogendijk was there from the start, filming the museum staffers and architects as they collaborated on a grand vision for preserving what was special about the 19th-century design of architect Pierre Cuypers, while updating it for the realities of the 21st century. But almost as soon as the stewards of the museum’s future announced their plans, some of the Dutch citizenry rebelled, nitpicking every choice that had already been argued to death behind closed doors, and petitioning the government to intervene. Thus began a grueling decade-long process of revision and compromise, during which key personnel quit the project, while a national debate raged over the true purpose of this venerable institution.
Hoogendijk’s intentions for her documentary also changed over that decade, and the resulting film, The New Rijksmuseum, suffers some from the evolution. Running nearly four hours long—divided into four 55-minutes-plus parts—The New Rijksmuseum is, in parts one and two particularly, divided somewhat haphazardly between the film Hoogendijk thought she was going to make and the one that asserted unexpectedly itself. There’s a lot of material early on about curation, as the directors of the museum’s assorted wings try to decide what pieces to keep on display in an adjunct building during the shutdown, and then to decide how best to present the artwork once the project is done. There’s a potentially fascinating hourlong procedural doc nestled within The New Rijksmuseum, following the people who travel the world—and participate in international auctions by telephone—to acquire art, always balancing the cost of their purchases with the potential to draw more visitors.
But Hoogendijk doesn’t get to do as much with this as she might’ve liked, because the saga of the museum itself overwhelms the story of its employees. This is the saga of contractors’ bids that come in way higher than anyone was anticipating, and of cutting-edge new construction that gets scuttled by tight budgets, tight deadlines, and inflexible bureaucracies. And, more than anyone could’ve expected, The New Rijksmuseum is the saga of Amsterdam’s activist bicycling community, who’d been cutting through the museum’s courtyard for decades, and see that as a tradition more important than making a comfortable home for some Rembrandt masterpiece. (At one point, a cyclist at a public meeting actually says, “Sure, The Night Watch is great, but….”) This is where the length of The New Rijksmuseum pays off: in showing how the same problems keep cropping up as the project drags on, even when the people in charge are sure they’ve been put to bed. Anyone who’s ever served time on a subcommittee should identify with the scenes in this documentary where a group of people spend days in meetings figuring out exactly the right color for their gallery walls, only to have a higher-up order them to be repainted, spending a few mere seconds on his color selection.
Where the length doesn’t pay off is in the unevenness of the filmmaking. It’s as though by the time Hoogendijk figured out how to tell this story, she was already halfway into the shoot. The second half of The New Rijksmuseum is more focused and more cinematic, with some dynamic camera moves through the building as it nears completion. But while the movie isn’t a consistently riveting four hours, Hoogendijk does keep finding images and moments that demystify the museum business while making the art seem all the more magical. She gets in close on classical paintings, shortly before they’re mounted to a rack and slid into a warehouse, and she talks to people who are determined to make this building a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors… before they realize they’re running out of money and time.