Photograph of the Carnegie Museum of Art featuring the water pool

Museum Hours

I wish I could tell you that Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a great film. It’s the story of a sad, somewhat lost middle-aged woman from Montreal who borrows money to fly to Vienna to care for a dying relation. While there, she asks an English-speaking guard at the famed Kunsthistorisches Museum to help her find her way around the city, where she knows no one, and they become friends. Their connection seems deep and significant, but it’s sketchily drawn, and we never learn enough about their relationship to make that part of the story compelling.

The reason I wish it were a great movie is that it deals quite eloquently with issues that are significant to Carnegie Museum of Art and to museums in general. In many ways, it answers the question, “What are museums for?” (the title of a recurring program at CMA). The film’s real concern is the rewards of intense looking. When the camera follows the guard through the museum we hear his thoughts about the art in his native German (there are English subtitles); when the woman is looking at the art, or when they’re looking together, the film is in English. Clearly, it is her experience with the paintings—provided with the help of the guard—that cements their friendship and gets her through a difficult time in a strange city.

The real stars are the artworks: Rembrandts, Caravaggios, and especially the museum’s extraordinary collection of paintings by the Flemish Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Many years ago I spent several weeks in Vienna and returned almost daily—as she does—to look at those paintings. They have fantastical elements but are rooted in the everyday. Most are scenes of peasant life, shaped by the changing seasons, and the weather depicted in them is palpable: the fall harvest; hunting in the snow in winter. At one point during the movie an incisive tour guide equates them to snapshots that bring a distant moment into the present. I thought that, too.

Still from Museum Hours (2012), directed by Jem Cohen
Still from Museum Hours (2012), directed by Jem Cohen

In Museum Hours, Cohen shows us the ways in which art enriches human experience. He also repeatedly juxtaposes the images and objects inside the Kunsthistorisches Museum with collections of objects and images found on the streets of the city and inside its shops and restaurants—flea markets and the photographs papering the walls of a local pub are two examples. In doing so he demonstrates how the insights gleaned from careful looking—what you ideally do in a museum—can be applied to daily life. At the same time, he questions the value of these different things: Both are potentially emotionally moving but why are some so valuable and others not, or—better still—why are some valued monetarily and others only personally?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

At one point in the movie, the guard recalls a visiting student, a “punk kid” who denigrates the museum as elitist because the works were originally created for patrons who wanted to show off their wealth. The guard knows that the museum’s works vary in origin and purpose. Eventually the young man learns that the Louvre, once the palace of French kings, was opened to the people during the Revolution as a radical gesture: Art for all.

Museum Hours is almost a primer on how to look at, and take pleasure in, art. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the purpose of museums illuminated in such a profound way. If that interests you, I recommend you see it.

Inside the Museum will be on hiatus next month. I’ll be back in October.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.