As the World Burns, Museum Leaders “Deeply Shaken” by Climate Protests

The world is nearing a climate catastrophe, with heating gases hitting record highs and experts warning of “irreversible” changes to our environment. Against this backdrop, leaders at prominent art institutions have released a statement indicating that they are “deeply shaken” — not by the alarming warming of the planet, necessarily, but by recent climate protests involving the “risky endangerment” of art.

The missive was signed by directors of the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre in Paris, and Madrid’s Museo del Prado, among others, who condemned the recent wave of climate activism targeting masterpieces, all of which have been protected by glass and undamaged so far.

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In October, activists from the group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888) at London’s National Gallery, and other actions have targeted Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665) and Claude Monet’s “Grainstacks” (ca. 1890).

In the statement, published by the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) German national committee on Wednesday, November 9, the authors express concern that activists “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage.” They emphasize that museums are places for “dialogue” among people of diverse backgrounds, and reiterate a commitment to ensuring that museums remain a “free space for social communication.”

These fears over art’s “fragility” come as 90 state officials and leaders from 190 countries convene in Egypt for COP27, this year’s edition of the United Nations’ annual summit on climate change. Since last year’s conference, few countries have followed through with commitments that were made last year at Glasgow. 

Signatories of the statement include leaders at New York institutions — including Met Museum Director Max Hollein; Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum; and Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum — and worldwide, including Xavier Rey, director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris; Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; and Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, among many others.

Although some leaders have previously expressed dismay with activists’ tactics — and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) released a statement expressing its disapproval late last week — yesterday’s statement represents the most unified reaction in the museum world thus far.

Meanwhile, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests that the world’s margin for error is increasingly narrowing. If warming does not stay within bounds of a couple tenths of a degree, by 2100, the planet will likely experience four times as many climate extremes as today, with vast populations susceptible to death from heat waves, air pollution, starvation, and disease. Right now, 3.3 billion people live under the specter of high exposure to climate change and are 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather. Many have already been displaced due to weather-related events.

Tomorrow, Friday, November 11, ICOM — the institution that published the recent statement — is due to convene a “one-day gathering of cultural organizations committed to climate action” at COP27.

“Art has never existed outside of society, it has always played a role in how we understand what it means to be human,” a Just Stop Oil spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “The current actions demonstrate how important art is, and why Just Stop Oil supporters and others in the A22 Network are prepared to be jailed defending the conditions that allow art to be made and understood.”


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