The Everyday Security Threat to Museums

It's not just about theft. Far from it.

While big heists grab the headlines and documentaries (and book deals, I should humbly add), there exists a much more common threat to museum collections, and one that is far more difficult to prevent—vandalism. An interesting piece in the Rochester City newspaper by David Andreatta brought this issue to the fore yesterday.

Andreatta told the story of George Haag, a man with what appears to be some mental health issues who was in criminal court facing charges of attempted theft of a piece from an Andy Warhol exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery earlier this year.

From the interview Andreatta conducted with the accused, it’s clear that Haag isn’t some hardened career thief with underworld connections through whom he hoped he might fence the stolen artwork. Instead, he comes off as a person in need of treatment from a skilled mental health provider for his desire for attention via the most inappropriate means.

In the incident that led to his arrest and ongoing prosecution, we learned that Haag lifted a piece from the wall of the exhibition. He reports to Andreatta that he wasn’t sure he wanted to steal it or simply move it. Whatever his intent, he put the art in serious danger of damage, and any museum security professional reading the article has to feel (as did I) the troubling prospect of a visitor inflicting intentional damage to a work of art.

It’s a well-established fact that institutions sometimes keep close any security incidents related to their collections. The same is true of incidents of vandalism. Often, pieces can be easily repaired and, absent any good evidence depicting the crime, a museum might simply have its conservation staff fix any slight marring of a work before returning it to its usual place. So there’s no point in notifying the media or sometimes even the police.

But history is rife with examples of very serious art vandalism, and the crime is far more difficult to protect against than theft. This is why visitors to the Louvre are often surprised to see the distance and barriers in place between themselves and the Mona Lisa, which is there to prevent such attacks as the damage inflicted in 1956 by a deranged young man who threw a rock at the painting. Many other well-known masterworks have fallen victim to vandals, including Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican, which was attacked by a hammer-wielding Australian man proclaiming himself Jesus Christ. Author Doug Peterson described the event as follows:

The hammer came crashing down on the left arm of the statue of Jesus’s mother, Mary, and then the vandal smashed Mary’s face, knocking off a marble piece of her nose, left eye, and veil. In all, the man delivered about a dozen strikes with his hammer before an Italian fireman grabbed him by the hair and yanked him down from the statue.

Countless other works have been slashed, smashed, and ruined—all in a sudden, inexplicable, unexpected, and practically unpreventable act of madness.

Of course, damage to art in museums is far more often the result of an accident or an unintentional momentary lapse in judgment on the part of a visitor who touches an item they shouldn’t have. I’m constantly amazed by the fact that visitors regularly touch the “Do Not Touch” signs themselves.

All of these nightmare scenarios remind museum security personnel that they must be ever vigilant against the deranged. It’s a tremendous challenge. Gallery guards spend nearly every hour of their career asking people to put away pens and turn off the flash on their cameras (attention to the viewfinders of which often lead guests to walk into antiques). But a key part of their work is keeping an eye out for the person who acts unlike the rest of the crowd. Years of experience arms a guard with a good sense of how museum-goers behave and results in an often reliable eye for odd behavior.

So, next time a museum guard tells you you are too close to an object, be glad that they are so mindful of the care and protection of the art they are charged with securing.