Recent climate protests targeting masterpieces under glass have not damaged a single work of art so far, but in addition to expressing their disapproval, some museums are increasing security measures in response to the actions. Those include new “zero bag” policies and mandatory coat checks, but also comprise trainings on how to spot potential protestors. And at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art, management is hiring undercover police.
A spokesperson for the Reina Sofia told Hyperallergic that “security measures have been reinforced, including the presence of undercover members of the police forces” in response to recent demonstrations, such as the souping of a glass-protected van Gogh and other related actions by climate activists. And yesterday, November 9, directors of the world’s biggest museums published a statement on the recent wave of activism in which they said they were “deeply shaken” by the “risky endangerment” of masterpieces. Signatories included the directors of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art, and European institutions including the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
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But are the new security measures warranted? The Reina Sofia has not experienced past attacks, and despite the recent protests’ omnipresence in the news, the American Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists executive committee told Hyperallergic that the damage or loss of museum works is “exceedingly rare.” (The group also stated that there are no statistics on the number of artworks damaged or lost at museums in a given year.) The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which has 2,000 works of art on display, said the only work targeted in the past year was Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera” (c. 1480) — in June, members of climate advocacy group Ultima Generazione glued themselves to the painting, but the museum told Hyperallergic there was no damage.
Some fear that institution’s responses to the recent actions — which have largely involved gestures that are inconsequential to the art itself, such as activists gluing themselves to frames — could contribute to the further exclusion of certain groups from museums.
“Increasing policing and surveillance undoubtedly poses a barrier to access and inclusion in museums, particularly for marginalized visitors who may already feel unwelcome in these spaces. Undercover police especially feels unwarranted,” Camille-Mary Sharp, a faculty fellow in the museum studies department at New York University, told Hyperallergic in an interview.
Like Botticelli’s “Primavera” and van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” other works targeted by climate activists have been incredibly famous, and the actions seem designed to go viral on social media — Lil Nas X even made a meme to “avenge Mr. van Gogh.” But in a video explaining Just Stop Oil’s tactics, activist Phoebe Plummer clarified that the group’s intentions are not to cause harm to the works.
“We never, ever would have considered doing it if we didn’t know it was behind glass and we wouldn’t do any damage,” Plummer explained.
Upping security measures, even if preventative, could affect more than just climate activism, according to Sharp.
“We are seeing these manifestations of climate anxiety (i.e., protests) being used to justify increasing policing in what, in an ideal world, should be public spaces of art, creativity, dialogue, and critique,” she said. “I hope museums think hard about their recent statements of solidarity and commitments to social justice and sustainability before implementing such draconian measures.”