What museums are doing to protect artworks from soup and potato puree

4 mins read
Following the attack by climate activists on a painting by Claude Monet, Potsdam's Museum Barberini will remain closed for a few days. Photo: Soeren Stache/dpa

More and more artworks are being smeared with food products in activist stunts drawing attention to government inaction on the climate crisis. Museums in Germany, the site of a recent mashed potato attack, are considering new measures to protect their art.

The security guard at Potsdam’s Barberini art museum is visibly at a loss as to how to react.

Striding to the Monet painting where two people wearing high visibility orange vests are clearly up to something, he seems unsure about how to stop them, shouting a helpless “Hello? Hello?”

One of the activists, possibly briefly taken off guard by the hesitant approach, then himself replies with “Hello,” before they splatter mashed potatoes across the painting from the French impressionist’s “Haystacks” series.

In the more than five years since the museum opened its doors just outside Berlin, the Barberini has made a name for itself as a temple of art, but had yet to make the national news.

That has now changed thanks to the action by the Last Generation activists last Sunday who, like other environmental groups, are currently attacking artworks all across Europe with different substances – often food – to draw attention to climate change issues and push for more decisive action.

Earlier in October, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s masterwork “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was targeted by climate change activists in a museum in the Netherlands.

A video posted to Twitter shows two men near the painting. One of them glued his head to the glass in front of the artwork and a red liquid was poured over him. The other man had taped his hand to the wall next to the picture.

The painting was not damaged, according to the Mauritshuis, the museum in The Hague which houses the work, completed by the Dutch master between 1665 and 1667. Some halls of the museum were closed.

The most prominent protest to date may well be a group of climate activists splashing tomato soup earlier this month at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” hanging in London’s National Gallery, but similar incidents have also occurred in a series of other cities, including Manchester and Glasgow.

As in Potsdam, the artwork in London didn’t sustain any damages as it was covered by glass.

In Germany, many museums are now reconsidering security measures for their often valuable and sensitive exhibits, in fear of further protests.

Many institutions have already ramped up protective measures, managing director of the German Museums Association, David Vuillaume, told dpa.

Simply hiring more security personnel isn’t a solution in his eyes, as the employees are put under a lot of stress in these situations.

“We need to prepare employees for this,” Vuillaume says, adding that counselling should be part of the process.

Following the attack on the Monet painting, the Barberini museum will remain closed until October 30, to consider how security measures can be improved, founder and multi-billionaire Hasso Plattner told local media.

The attack on the Monet painting, as well as the other protests across Europe, have shown that “the high international security standards for the protection of artworks are not sufficient in the case of activist attacks and need to be adapted,” Barberini director Ortrud Westheider said, explaining the closure.

But what could better measures potentially look like? Equipping guards with protective blankets and glue remover?

Some museums in Germany are planning to ramp up visitor checks at the entrance. “Larger bags are already banned in the museum,” says Stefan Weppelmann who heads the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig.

“We’re now considering how we can be even more vigilant, especially with regard to the personal belongings visitors carry with them.”

At the Städel museum in Frankfurt, safety standards meet the “highest international standards,” according to the institution where two climate activists each glued one hand to the frame of a large painting at the end of August.

The painting “Landscape during a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe” by Nicolas Poussin symbolises “the destructive course of current politics,” Last Generation said on Twitter at the time.

The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) in eastern Germany began ramping up security measures after artworks were attacked in Manchester and Glasgow in July.

“The works are protected against attacks by various structural, technical and also organisational measures,” the museum told dpa.

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Just Stop Oil protesters in London poured tomato soup Vincent Van Gogh’s 1888 work “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. Photo: Just Stop Oil/PA Media/dpa

Another museum in Hanover instructed facility managers, guards and the restorer on how to handle such situations, according to spokesperson Judith Hartstang.

In Germany, attacks on artwork are a criminal offence and will be punished with criminal charges, she said.

“The works that were recently affected in London and Potsdam were behind glass – probably the best protection against paint, soup or mashed potato attacks,” according to Hartstang. The Sprengel Museum uses acoustic motion detectors, plexiglass bonnets for plinths as well as spacers in addition to glazing to protect its exhibits.

Some museums, however, are hesitant to introduce such measures, saying the artworks should be accessible without barriers.

“I don’t want museums to become high-security zones,” Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), told Die Welt newspaper. “We can’t put a security guard next to every painting, every sculpture,” he said, adding that museums should be open, social and inviting places for everyone – a premise that should not be abused.

According to Ilka Erdwiens, spokesperson for an art museum in Emden, Lower Saxony, smaller institutions are less at risk, as the activists seem to have mostly targeted works by the great masters on display in well-known museums, to generate more attention.

However, she is still critical of protests targeting art, “which is supposed to open one’s own perspective, one’s view and to broaden one’s consciousness.” Those are the same ideals the climate movement is fighting for, says Erdwiens.

Others in the art scene agree. “We expect activists not only to demand respect for nature, but also to have respect for culture,” said the Director General of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, Bernhard Maaz. ©dpa

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