If you haven’t guessed by now, I hold a great affinity for the city of Chicago. The importance of Chicago extends largely to the memories I’ve forged while here. Driving by my childhood neighborhood, with all the changes that have occurred in the past twenty years, strikes up hallucinatory recounts of memory that both bewilder and soothe. Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours can best be described as a film that confronts these recounts in memory. Through gentle candor, Cohen very wistfully acknowledges the relationship between memory and artistry as a matter of perspective.
A security guard for Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Joann (Bobby Sommer) befriends a woman from Montreal. Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara) is in Vienna to visit her comatose cousin - their relationship not defined by much else beyond their kinship. As Joann and Anne wander the museum grounds, discussing the works of Bruegel and Rembrandt, Joann extends his wisdom beyond that of the realm of artistry. Functioning as both translator and guide, Joann relishes in the opportunity to revisit much of Vienna’s sites as a means of recounting his own memories. From discussing his past as a rock-band manager to regaling Anne’s cousin with his thoughts on art, Joann can be seen as emerging out of his cocoon of solitude.
Joann and Anne’s relationship only sporadically contributes to Museum Hours’ runtime. What Cohen does for the remainder of the film, and what truly punctuates the film as being of immense melancholic value, is the intercut imagery of Vienna and the corresponding images of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The film invites contemplation on what we as the audience define as art. Not to reject the works of Bruegel or Rembrandt, Cohen does question the imposed social forces that define art as something lasting within the confines of a museum. From the image of a broken toy in a junk shop to the sight of kids on skateboards in Vienna, there’s an explicit sense that one ought to keep their eyes open to see the art around them; a museum serves as only a single facet in which to observe and contemplate artistry. In what can be considered Museum Hour’s thesis, a museum lecturer discusses how one ought to observe the larger tapestry of a painting - including the painter’s history and output - to understand the artist’s intent. A particularly cynical man notes that the title of the painting indicates what the artist’s intent was, therein stripping away any sense of meaning from some of the outlying images found in the painting; don’t let the concept of a museum strip away the sense of artistry from what exists in the outside world.