In searching for some controversial topics regarding museums I began to think about the increased number of incidents involving climate protesters entering museums and attempting to vandalize high-profile works of art. It feels like every few months we hear stories of climate activists adhering themselves to artwork or throwing glue/beans/etc at famous pieces including artwork from Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso, just to name a few.

These instances have become more regular, especially as a group called “Just Stop Oil” began organizing instances of activists entering museums in an attempt to gain media attention for their mission. We have heard of activists gluing themselves to the artwork, throwing food on it, and even a case of colored powder being thrown.

Many folks in these instances have asked “Why are these activists attacking the artwork?” Why not just focus on the oil companies, government, and other agencies that are directly involved? On the other hand, these activists have also been very successful. They gain a lot of media attention, their activities result in excellent clickbait, and oftentimes the artwork has not been harmed. For example in 2022 climate activists threw mashed potatoes at a painting by Monet at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. The painting is valued at over $111 million, however, it was covered with glass and was not damaged in the act. The same goes for the Vincent Van Gogh painting in the National Gallery in London which activists threw a can of soup at and then glued themselves to the adjascent wall. The painting was behind glass, and the artwork was not damaged.

What I wonder as I read about these attacks is…are these activists targeting works that they know are protected? Or are they just targeting high-profile pieces to draw more attention, and those pieces happen to be protected? Is there any intentionality there?

I know that these attacks have caused great anxiety for the curators and museum staff tasked with caring for these pieces. It makes me think back to when we looked at museum jobs and we briefly talked about museum security. Security staff seem to be some of the last museum jobs that we think of when we think about jobs at museums. Yet, when climate activists glue themselves to a painting, they are the first people we turn to and ask, “what happened?” Are security staff responsible for the safety of the art? The people in the gallery? In videos that I have watched of these attacks, there are no security officers rushing in to stop the attack, maybe because there is no protocol for these instances.

There is a lot that you can say about attacks on artwork by climate activists including the fact that they are very successful in getting out their message. In general, the attack is done, and then the activist stands in front of the artwork and states their message. Whatever they say is then quoted in newspapers and social media across the globe as viewers gawk at the famous artwork covered in cake, beans, soup, etc.

One Thought to “Museum Controversies”

  1. MoHagani Magnetek

    Intriguing questions you pose. I wonder if any or even a few of the activists conduct recognizance missions on the works they target. Like what’s the point of tossing mashed potatoes or soup on something that’s clearly protected from just about anytime of harm. For as creative as these activists are, they don’t seem like they approach the acts of vandalism in a smart manner. Yet, these attacks are successful in getting lots of media coverage that raises awareness to the activists respective causes. Which I guess is more the objective than damaging priceless works of art.

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