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Climate change activists from the “Last Generation” group glue themselves under a painting from Monet’s Haystacks series after throwing mashed potatoes at the artwork in the Barberini museum in Potsdam, Germany, on October 23, 2022. Photo: AFP

Amid recent art attacks, should museums become high-security zones? How institutions are responding to climate change activists

  • Recent climate protests from activists targeting famous artworks have museums rethinking their security, but few want to turn their galleries into bank vaults
  • Many institutions have already ramped up protective measures, including more visitor checks at entrances and training security personnel on how to respond

The security guard at the Barberini art museum in Potsdam, Germany, 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 them, 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.

Climate change activists glue their hands to the glass covering Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy, on July 22, 2022. Photo: Getty Images

That has now changed thanks to the action by the Last Generation activists earlier in October 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.

Also 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.

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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 at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hanging in London’s National Gallery earlier this month, but similar incidents have also occurred in a series of other cities, including Manchester and Glasgow in the UK.

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

Activists spray paint the wall and glue themselves to the frame of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci at the Royal Academy in London on July 5, 2022. Photo: In Pictures via Getty Images

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, according to David Vuillaume, managing director of the German Museums Association.

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 said, adding that counselling should be part of the process.

David Vuillaume, managing director of the German Museums Association. Photo: German Museums Association

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”, said Barberini director Ortrud Westheider, explaining the closure.

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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 their entrances.

“Larger bags are already banned in the museum,” said 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.”

We can’t put a security guard next to every painting, every sculpture
Hermann Parzinger, president, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation

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” at the time.

The 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 said.

Climate activists in front of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at a museum in the Netherlands. Photo: Twitter/@StevenBakker

Another museum in Hanover, The Sprengel Museum, 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,” Hartstang said.

The Sprengel Museum uses acoustic motion detectors, Plexiglas bonnets and glazing to protect its exhibits.

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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, told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper. “We can’t put a security guard next to every painting, every sculpture.”

He added 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, Germany, 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, she said.

Others in the art scene agree.

“We expect activists not only to demand respect for nature, but also to have respect for culture,” said Bernhard Maaz, director general of the Bavarian State Painting Collections.