Note: This was originally published in December 2019. We’re bringing it back now so you can find new ways of going to the museum from home.
There are many museum and art-centered films streaming now to entertain you. Though the madcap fun of blockbusters like the Night at The Museum series might be your salve of choice, here are five celebrated films that explore the world of museums, and provide respite, perspective, and contented joy.
Museum Hours (2013)
A thoughtful meditation on isolation, the comfort of melancholy, and the power of art to forge human connections, Museum Hours is the story of a guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and his chance meeting with a Canadian woman visiting her ill cousin in the hospital. Using 16th-century Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s pictures of peasant life as inspiration, director Jem Cohen observes his characters going about their days, moving through seemingly ordinary scenes of Viennese life; yet in each moment, we feel their gratitude and the simple joy of finding a friend to talk to.
If, after viewing the film, you wish to explore the Bruegel paintings featured, you may do so through the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s website InsideBruegel.net, a project that stemmed from the Getty Foundation’s Panel Paintings Initiative. (Read all about the project in this previous Iris post.)
Rent on YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, or stream for free with a public library account on Kanopy.
National Gallery (2014)
Master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman explores both the public activities and the behind-the-scenes work of The National Gallery, London in this comprehensive and insightful film. Without a voiceover or narration, Wiseman allows the sounds and experiences of the museum to tell the story, using contrasting shots and interesting angles to express his vision. Tense staff meetings are followed by inspired docent monologues about the fascinating and beautiful pictures; bored faces of the catering staff working a museum event are intercut with joyous partygoers sloshing their drinks; the after-hours galleries filled with hallowed masterpieces are interrupted in their grandeur by the whirring of a floor polisher.
In these contrasts, we see Wiseman’s subject: the banal in the divine, and the divine in the banal. We see that a museum serves many different functions, and that perhaps the space where historians and scientists come to investigate is also, welcomingly, a place where members of the public can feel at home.
Stream for free with a public library account on Kanopy.
The Square (2017)
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Square is the story of Christian, chief curator of the fictional X-Royal Art Museum in Stockholm. The museum is staging an exhibition around a work entitled “The Square,” which is meant to serve as “a sanctuary of trust and caring,” according to the artist’s statement. “Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” We witness Christian grapple with this statement in his daily life. The film is a biting satire of the contemporary art world. The Square feels vibrant and modern in its themes, and ultimately embraces art as a catalyst for humanity and grace in its characters.
Stream on Hulu or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV or Google Play
The Price of Everything (2018)
Not about a museum, specifically, Nathaniel Kahn’s fascinating and enlightening documentary examines every facet of the contemporary art market. He speaks to successful artists and to artists struggling to find their voices, skeptical curators and enthusiastic art dealers, those running small galleries and those collecting everything they possibly can. The film never claims that the frenzied market involving billions of dollars is objectively good or bad; it just is. There is demand, and so there is supply. We are left with a clearer lens from which to take in works of art, understanding that though we wish to evaluate art on its own merits, the agreed-upon value inherently influences our feelings toward the artworks.
Stream exclusively on HBO Now
Christmas night, 1985, Mexico City. Two 30-something veterinarian students pull off one of the most notorious museum heists in history at the National Museum of Anthropology, stealing dozens of priceless Mayan objects. Their (fictionalized) tale is told in director Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film, which finds the two thieves becoming more and more aware of the complexities of their actions. The film asks to whom the past belongs, and what role should museums play in the preservation and protection of cultural heritage? Gael García Bernal and Leonardo Ortizgris bring depth and humor to their roles as passionate rebels who find a cause; stoutly championing the value of their country’s indigenous roots.
Stream on Google Play, Amazon, Apple TV, and YouTube TV