About the Movie

Reviewed by David W. Leinweber
Oxford College of Emory University

Hidden Treasures: Stories from a Great Museum, directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Alexandra M. Isles, is a distinctive and truly worthwhile documentary. It highlights many precious artifacts of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The twist, however, is that this virtual tour of the museum is told from the perspective of the staff entrusted to care for the museum's world-class artifacts, as opposed to the professional academicians or art-critics who so often dominate topics of this nature. Somehow this brings the objects to life in a surprisingly magical way.

The film succeeds on several levels. First and foremost, Hidden Treasures provides a worthwhile virtual walk through of the museum itself. Just as a stand-alone treatment of the Museum in and of itself, the film has great aesthetic value – a true feast for the eyes and ears. The Metropolitan Museum houses exquisite specimens of oil-paintings, medieval weapons, statues, musical instruments, manuscripts, as well as artifacts from the "remote parts of the world." The film presents the many wonderful objects in this world-class collection with thoughtful, tasteful selectivity. Indeed, Isles highlights the Museum's lovely architecture and design as much as the collection in and of itself. Laurence Rosenthal's performance of music by Gurdjieff/de Hartmann gives Hidden Treasures a quiet, intelligent feel as the camera moves about the spaces and halls of the Museum.

More important, though, is the commentary and insight provided by the "caretakers" of the precious objects highlighted in the documentary. From guards to gardeners, the insights provided by the staff highlighted in the film give fresh and valuable perspectives. In one case the caretaker in armory and weapons tells how he found, during his routine maintenance of the collection, a "secret compartment" in a sword dating from the time of the sixteenth century Ottoman ruler Suleiman "The Magnificent." In another compelling scene, the Museum's Cloister-Garden horticulturalist discusses, and displays, plants used in the medieval period for their purported medicinal and magical qualities. Other staff interviews feature custodians of medieval manuscripts, early seventeenth century musical instruments, and objects made by indigenous peoples of the South Pacific. In an especially poignant moment, Hidden Treasures features a group of special needs visitors to the Museum, along with comments from their host.

Above all, Hidden Treasures is a film that truly causes one to think about the nature of great museums. Museums clearly provide an absolutely invaluable public service. At their best they provide care and storage for precious objects. They also effectively gather multiple pieces into one location, making them more conveniently available for the viewing public. In this regard, museums not only serve aesthetic and educational functions, but utilitarian ones as well. On the other hand, museums can seem antiseptic and insular. Art Museums remove objects from their intended settings – from city-centers, places of public worship, homes, or other places of past times and far-away locales. It is all to easy to forget that "Great Art" was often once in public spaces where it was enjoyed by the masses of people from all walks of life – not just those comfortable with the world of wealthy endowments and elite post-secondary educations. The strength of Alexandra Isles' Hidden Treasures documentary is how it brings the art to life, through the eyes of the caretaking staff. In a perhaps counter-intuitive fashion, their often unsung perspectives add color and romance to the various pieces, even from within the context of the museum setting.

Hidden Treasures: Stories from a Great Museum is a truly worthwhile film. It is unique in its approach to art, and inspiring in the way it brings both art and people to life. It is factually informative. It is highly recommended viewing for students in educational settings. It would make a valuable addition to library film collections. It will also be enjoyed and appreciated by general audiences with an interest in art or history.