National Gallery


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

National Gallery
"What comes through is a sense of the vast number of tasks the museum must carry out to cover its remit as a public service."

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is famed for his explorations of long-standing institutions and the way they interact with the public, such as Titicut Follies and the more recent, four-hour epic At Berkeley. Here, the veteran filmmaker sets up his camera in Britain’s National Gallery to study a year of its operation.

Having shot hundreds of hours of footage, Wiseman had time to both explore the gallery’s working life that the public can see daily; exhibitions, events and the arresting gallery works themselves, but also its behind-the-scenes operations. What comes through is a sense of the vast number of tasks the museum must carry out to cover its remit as a public service. Wiseman takes us at one point into a special teaching session where gallery staff guide blind visitors through braille representations of key pieces of art one by one, while later on we see tour guides carefully moderate their routine so as to guide young children and teens through the works of Rembrandt, Turner and others. Wiseman also takes time to show how individuals in such a monolithic old structure try to carve out their own personal space; the tour guides and lecturers often have their own appealingly idiosyncratic ways of transmitting information to their audiences.

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Perhaps the most compelling parts of the film are those where the camera settles on the gallery’s restorers and curators busying themselves behind the scenes. There is something intriguingly arcane about the techniques and equipment they are seen using - bottles of mysterious liquids and clunky wood frames with screws. The amount of work required to keep the gallery funded, organised and these ageing works protected boggles the mind. A number of sequences set in boardrooms make it clear also that the museum is operating in a context of an austerity-committed government, with a gloomy future of dwindling support for the arts providing the backcloth for the nuanced debates about spending priorities and corporate funding.

The resulting film runs just shy of three hours so stamina is required, but this allows a sense of the rhythms, sounds and colours of the place to be established for the viewer, with the result being a strangely mesmerising effect.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2014
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A documentary exploring the National Gallery in London.
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Director: Frederick Wiseman

Year: 2014

Runtime: 180 minutes

Country: France, USA, UK

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