The film director Wes Anderson has a cult-like following. His work would be instantly recognizable, if it weren’t so often imitated. (See the Intagram account @accidentallywesanderson for images that are quintessentially Wes Anderson, except that they're not.) Anderson is the mastermind behind films like Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and most recently, Isle of Dogs (2018). And now, he—and his partner Juman Malouf—are the masterminds behind “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures,” a transhistorical exhibition at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
The filmmaker and designer/author combed through a whopping 4.5 million works from the museum’s collection, most of which are stored in a warehouse near Vienna’s airport. The resulting exhibition functions like a cabinet of curiosities. Four-hundred objects, drawn from all 14 of the museum’s collections, are displayed in carefully organized vitrines that group their contents not chronologically or regionally, but instead, by an internal logic completely foreign to institutional exhibition-making. Some vitrines are organized by color (a green room displays an emerald vessel from 1641, a green cigarette case, a silk dress from the play “Hedda Gabler” in 1978, and some feathers), thematic subjects (a wall of portraits depicting children dressed as royalty or clergy), or jokes (a piece of petrified wood, a painting on maple depicting a piece of wood, and a whittled wooden sculpture displayed in a wood-paneled room). Each of these objects have been, in a sense, stripped of their significance. Without historical context, or even title placards, these decontextualized objects don't provide viewers with a "whole" enriched experience. For this reason, the exhibition hasn’t exactly received glowing reviews.
Like his film critics, who feel Anderson’s films prioritize style and aesthetics over depth and meaning, critics of the exhibition question whether Anderson and Malouf’s aestheticized approach is fit for the task of curating. Writes Cody Delistraty of the New York Times, “Mr. Anderson and Ms. Malouf, who speak little German, created a purely visual show. For the most part, they were interested neither in the provenance or rarity of a piece, nor whether it was the best example of its school or style. Rather, they grouped about 450 objects by color, materials and size, in a way that reflected many of Mr. Anderson’s cinematic tricks.”
“Mr. Anderson’s cinematic tricks” may not impress critics, but they are the precise reasons that millions of people watch his films. The Royal Tennenbaums came out when I was 15 years old, and I know that I was not alone when it blew my teenage mind. It was the first film that got me excited about the artistry of film, the first film that made me think about the movies not just as entertainment, but as experiences. The Royal Tennanbaums was, for me, an introduction into the world of film, a jumping-off point that led me to countless other, much better, films. If a museum’s goal is to, at least partly, reach new audiences, inspire interest in the arts, and provoke a deeper, hopefully life-long investigation into the appreciation of art, then maybe Wes Anderson’s hand in curation could do for art what The Royal Tennanbaums did for my teenage self.
Whether or not Anderson and Malouf were successful at creating the sense of mood and ambience that Anderson’s films do so impeccably well, though, is up for debate. If you’re in Vienna, go decide for yourself. Otherwise, check out the documentation below for a close look at the dramatic exhibition.