Oeke Hoogendijk’s “The New Rijksmuseum” labors under a burden of happenstance. It arrives at the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday, less than a year after Frederick Wiseman’s superb “National Gallery.”
Each documentary presents an intimate, at times epic, view of one of the world’s great art museums. Like Wiseman, Hoogendijk offers no voice-over narration, no talking-head experts, no archival footage. She puts you there , in the middle of a majestic, miraculous place.
A glorious neo-Gothic pile, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum looks like a greatly expanded version of Harvard’s Memorial Hall. Or Hogwarts: Hoogendijk’s first shot of the buildings shows them from above, in mist, appearing truly magical.
Note the plural: “buildings.” The documentary follows the museum’s 10-year renovation — hence that “new” in the title. The biggest reason the project took so long, and doubled the original cost estimates, was that the pathway separating the two main buildings is a favorite route of Amsterdam cyclists — and Amsterdam is to cyclists as Boston is to drivers. Design after design is tweaked, or outright rejected, because of bicycling issues. “I spend more time on cyclists than I spend on Rembrandt,” the museum director grouses.
So. unlike Wiseman, Hoogendijk has plot as well as place: a narrative of construction, halts to construction, public meetings. The single most dramatic scene is the opening of sealed construction bids. It’s even more exciting than an art auction in which the museum is a bidder.
Maybe all the starting and stopping made Hoogendijk nervous. The documentary betrays a rather unmuseum-like restlessness. There are side trips to Spain (where the building architects work), Japan (for the purchase of a pair of statues), Paris (where the interior architects work). Hoogendijk relies on an intrusive score and has a weakness for overslick editing that makes a viewer appreciate all the more Wiseman’s quietist approach.
Still, that’s a small price to pay for a multitude of lovely moments. A curator of Asian art makes a small model of his gallery to double-check the architects’ drawings. The chief interior architect falls asleep during a meeting. The construction bids arrive in a small crate, looking like one of the works of art boxed up during the renovation. Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” stares back at us from under plastic. An on-site caretaker boasts of his job, “Who can say they live in the Rijksmuseum? I can. It’s great.” Yes, it is. And for slightly more than two hours, “The New Rijksmuseum” lets the rest of us live there, too.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.