Each year, in America alone, millions of people visit art museums—bringing with them millions of opportunities to damage the masterpieces they’re there to see. Whether intentional or not, caused by humans, forces of nature, or simply the passage of time, there’s always the chance that history's greatest masterpieces can be lost or damaged when put on view for all the world to see. Here is just a taste of the many ways art museums around the globe protect their priceless treasures.
1. Fire-Resistant Stone and Shrubs
You won't see curators of Los Angeles's Getty Center moving artworks when fire gets close, as the Skirball Fire did in 2017 (and as the Getty fire is now). That's because the museum was built with fire prevention in mind: According to The New York Times, the buildings' reinforced-concrete walls are covered in fire-resistant travertine stone; crushed stone, which is also fire resistant, is on each roof. The plants closest to the buildings are both fire resistant and hold water; trees on the property are regularly pruned. An irrigation and sprinkler system, which draw from a million-gallon tank under the center, can also be turned on to soak the grounds if fire is anywhere close. “The safest place for the artwork to be is right here in the Getty Center,” Ron Hartwig, then-vice president of communications for the J. Paul Getty Trust, told the Times in 2017.
2. Air Systems, Sprinklers, and Foldable Walls
Inside, the Getty Center is equipped with an air system that keeps smoke from entering the building, and well as folding walls that can close off areas of the museum if they happen to catch on fire. The building is also equipped with sprinklers, which are used only if there's no other option. (They're kept dry most of the time, to guard against leaks.)
3. Flood Walls
When plans were announced for the multimillion dollar relocation and construction of New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, courtesy of renowned architect Renzo Piano, mastery in design was to be expected. But then Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, and while in the midst of construction, Piano was compelled to innovate even further.
When the construction site was flooded with more than 5 million gallons of water, the building plans changed, adding a state-of-the-art flood wall to fend off future disasters and protect its works from potential water damage from flooding of the nearby Hudson River. Now, the museum boasts a fortification comprised of a 500-foot-long mobile wall and a 14-foot-tall by 27-foot-long flood door meant to withstand up to nearly 7000 pounds of impact, keeping the museum water-tight up to 16.5 feet (seven feet higher than before Sandy).
With climate change making intense storms more common on the East Coast, these precautions make sure the Whitney’s masterpieces—which include more than 18,000 works in their permanent collection alone—stay high and dry against the forces of Mother Nature.
In 1962, five murals by American master Mark Rothko were given to Harvard University as a gift from the artist himself. (Rothko refused to accept any payment, saying, “This is the first time I have been able to deliver commissioned work that I am satisfied with.”) The murals were to be hung in a dining hall, which underwent extensive preparation in order to fit Rothko’s specifications. New lighting was installed, the oak-paneled walls were covered in green material, and, in a retrospectively regrettable move, Rothko insisted that the public be allowed as much access to the art as possible.
Somewhat predictably for a college dining hall, it didn't take long for the paintings to fall into disrepair: The curtains in the sunny hall were rarely closed, so the paintings’ colors faded rapidly. They were scratched and dented by years of rearranging furniture. College students spilled food and drinks on the paintings, sometimes even tagging them with small bits of graffiti, leading university officials to put the murals into storage in 1979.
The damage would have been bad enough, but attempts to restore the paintings brought their own hurdles. Conventional restoration methods were a no-go due to Rothko’s trademark use of natural materials like eggs and animal glue mixed with pigment. Whereas conventional restoration would add layers of removable paint and varnish—removable so that they can be stripped and replaced with newer, better methods as they come along—any attempts to add paint to the Rothkos would be irreversible, as another one of the artist’s trademarks was to never use varnish.
And so, restoration efforts followed the lead of Raymond Lafontaine, whose study "Seeing Through a Yellow Varnish: A Compensating Illumination System" described the use of slide projectors to illuminate paint in such a way as to offset discoloration in old paintings. Using both an undamaged Rothko and some restored 1960s photographs, MIT Media Lab associate professor Ramesh Raskar created an algorithm that allowed him to find the perfect color match to be projected digitally onto the paintings, pixel by pixel, while simultaneously restoring the murals to their former glory yet leaving them untouched.
5. Special Glass
Glass plays a huge role in protecting pieces of art: Not only does it ward off finger smudges from prying hands, but it also can protect pieces from harmful UV rays, which can cause fading in paintings as well as on furniture, sculptures, or manuscripts. While you may think protective glass lives only directly in front of a piece of art, a museum’s first line of defense against UV rays is often in its windows, which are treated with a special UV-blocking coating—though many museums opt to avoid having windows near their art at all. “The only windows we have near exhibition areas are in the clerestory overlooking the lobby, and those windows are UV-filtered,” Amie Geremia of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville told Glass Magazine, adding, “You can see damage after a single day in the sun.”
6. Vibration Sensors
Vibration sensors can detect even the lightest pressure from curious fingers. Once triggered, the sensor sends a message to a control room, alerting security where the damage is taking place, along with a picture of the art in danger. Such sensors are often placed in several areas around a piece and can be customized so that the alarm sounds after a single touch, or after several vibrations in a row. “This is particularly useful in a museum when a large number of people are around because frequent vibrations are coming from the floor or small children," Andy Moon, technical director of Advanced Perimeter Systems told a&s Magazine. "You do not want to set off an alarm when that happens."
Vibration sensors, also known as seismic sensors, are usually attached to a painting’s frame—unless the frame is worth more than the painting itself, as is the case more often than you’d think. In these cases, “What the museum does is to make a false wall by putting some wood in front of the normal wall," Moon explained. "The painting is hung on the wall. Then, around the edge, we put a sensor cable. If someone touches the painting, it signals an alarm.”
7. Interactive Exhibits
For gallery guests who are just itching for physical contact with art, some museums provide a separate outlet. For example, the Bowes Museum in England's Barnard Castle offers an interactive exhibit where guests are actually encouraged to touch various materials and pieces. This allows guests the hands-on experience they crave, and provides a lesson in art’s fragility—provided, of course, that they remember that lesson after stepping into the more prohibitive exhibits.
Sometimes interactive exhibits have the opposite of the intended effect: When the National Museum of Wales opened its Centre Court in 1993, it eschewed barriers entirely, intending to allow as much physical access to the art as possible. Alas, within just a few days, one of the largest pieces in the collection—Michael Andrews's The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock)—was so spotted with children’s fingerprints that it had to be completely sealed off from the public.
8. LED Lights
When Vincent van Gogh painted his famous Sunflowers series in 1888/1889, viewers were awed by the bright yellow flowers produced by the artist's use of the pigment lead chromate, also known as chrome yellow. However, it was soon widely discovered that chrome yellow darkens significantly under light exposure—to such an extent that artists soon stopped painting with that particular pigment altogether. Fast forward a century or so, and art museums are still working to restore van Gogh's Sunflowers paintings to their original vibrancy.
In general, the way a painting is lit can have a huge impact on the preservation of its colors. For example, UV lights are pretty much bad all-around for paintings. For years, museums have combated UV damage by putting filters over their regular incandescent bulbs so that the UV rays can’t reach paintings. In recent years, though, the push toward more energy-efficient LED lights has had a bonus benefit for the art it illuminates: LED lights give off hardly any UV rays at all, so the art is more protected from light damage. The only problem is that LED lights don’t light a painting as prettily as their incandescent predecessors, so the LEDs have to be specially engineered to give off the same type of light, just without the harmful UV rays. Basically, every single-color LED light comes with a layer of phosphors, or a collection of metals that absorb that color of light. So, by tinkering with the phosphors on LED lights, museum conservators are able to adjust the light’s tint to more closely resemble that of the old incandescent bulbs.
While LEDs greatly reduce the damage done to paintings, enough of any lighting can be harmful to older art, which is why more and more museums are pushing toward dimmer galleries—allowing you to take in the art in front of you, but not so much the museum-goer next to you.
9. Inventory Numbers
Many museums keep an intricate catalog of inventory numbers that logs and identifies each piece in a collection, from its name, history, and location, all the way down to the thread count of its canvas. Not only does this aid in the organization of pieces, but it also helps track down art in the event of a burglary, according to Steven R. Keller, security consultant and former executive director of protection services at The Art Institute of Chicago. "In the event of a theft, you'll sometimes get 20 different calls from people claiming to have the piece and willing to return it for a price, “ Keller told security news site CSO. "In one case, we leaked the wrong numbers on purpose to sort out the phony extortionists from the real one. Finally, someone called and said, 'You've got the wrong serial number.' We knew we had our guy."
10. Displaying the Damage
Once damage has been done to a piece of art, it can sometimes be difficult to raise the funds necessary for restoration. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, found an unconventional solution to this problem when it created a collection exclusively for the display of damaged art. The collection, called "Hidden Treasures," debuted in early 2016 and provided a home for nearly 200 pieces of art that would have otherwise remained locked up in storage.
“When I took on my role [in October 2015], one of the first things I did was to visit the museum’s storage,” then-museum director (now artistic director) Hans-Peter Wipplinger told the AFP. "I discovered a number of works worthy of being exhibited, but that were too damaged.” The exhibition allowed visitors access to works like Robert Russ’s 1885 Mill with Evening Sky, a little worse for the wear with some tears in its canvas, though still of significant artistic and historical value. "Other museums often ask to borrow them, but they first have to be restored to survive the journey,” Wipplinger explained.
The cost to restore such pieces is often thousands of dollars, so the Leopold displayed its damaged art with the hope that some especially generous art lovers would want to help pay the cost to repair them, and would receive an identifying plaque next to the piece of art they helped to restore as a thank you for their generosity. But "Hidden Treasures" was more than a fundraising effort. "It’s also about showing the public all the work and technical know-how required to present a piece in mint condition," Wipplinger added.
11. Motion Detection
“Thieves usually don’t slither past detectors during museum heists,” explains Museum Security: The Art of Alarms [PDF], dispelling the popular action movie myth. “They pay their six bucks, walk in as members of the public, stay behind after closing by hiding behind the draperies or under a bench, and smash the window to get out.”
Many art heists might be fairly low-tech, but that doesn’t mean the protection against them has to be. Ever absentmindedly gotten a little too close to a painting and heard a loud chirping noise go off? That was a motion detector beamed directly over a painting. Such detection systems are also beamed over entrances and exits—even sneaky ones like windows and air ducts—to alert security personnel to after-hours intruders.
But what about those aforementioned stragglers, who intentionally lag behind a group in the hopes of avoiding detection from sensors? That’s where saturation motion detection comes in. Rather than only watching spots in a room associated with ingress and egress, saturation motion detectors do exactly that: Saturate a room with motion detection. This helps detect any thief or vandal trying to sidestep “dead zones,” or areas not covered by traditional detection systems, allowing security to keep tabs on anyone who steps into an art exhibit at any given time.
12. Kid Bans
In January 2014, a photo surfaced of children climbing on Donald Judd's “stacks” sculptures at London’s Tate Modern as their parents looked on. Not to be outdone, in August 2015, a young boy tripped and tore a hole through a 17th-century Paolo Porpora painting called Flowers on display at an art exhibition in Taiwan, estimated to be worth about $1.5 million. In the case of the former incident, the stealthily-captured photo was tweeted by another patron alongside the caption: “Holy crap. Horrible kids, horrible parents.”
“I was shocked," another passerby reported to the London Evening Standard. "I said to the parents I didn’t think their kids should be playing on a $10 million artwork. The woman turned around and told me I didn’t know anything about kids and said she was sorry if I ever had any."
Such incidents shed light onto what many museum patrons think of the presence of children at museums that may be well above their sophistication level. In a 2014 point-counterpoint with The Telegraph, critic Ivan Hewitt blamed a misinterpreted Victorian ideal as the culprit for rampant children in gallery spaces:
“Many people seriously hold the view that making children conform to the adult quiet of museums is a form of child abuse, which should be subverted at every turn ... The irony is that at the root of this solicitousness lies a very Victorian idea, which is that children must be initiated into the glories of high culture, and not kept away. The problem is that this good idea has become confused with a very bad one. This is the notion that high culture must be brought down to the kids’ level.”
Dea Birkett, creative director of Kids in Museums, a London-based organization dedicated to making museums family-friendly places, countered that the condemnation of children in museums would be a condemnation of art in general—at least, the reaction that it’s meant to incite in humans, big and small. "It’s not really children that any of these finger-waggers want to ban. It's joy," Birkett said. "For it isn’t contempt (as Hewett claims) that early exposure to great art breeds, but passion. We should be thrilled when even young children respond so enthusiastically to a Rubens or a Richard Long. Isn’t this exactly what we want?”