Museum rental is a recipe for disaster

One of my favorite Onion Heads reads, “Difficult museum now lets customers touch paintings.” The featured image of the article shows people in a gallery doing just that. A man in the background appears to be removing a painting from the wall, while a woman in the foreground rubs her face against another piece. A superfluous museum guard stands watching. The caption explains, “Met officials believe that a few smeared or leaky O’Keefe’s is a small price to pay for renewed interest in the arts.” The whole triumvirate – headline, image, caption – creates the perfect satirical pitch and immediately evokes laughter. We know this is wrong, but why? Has the art world gone mad? Perhaps the absurd scenario prompts us to ask ourselves: why are we not allowed to touch the art in museums?

I’ve worked as a security guard at several art museums since 2001 and I can’t help but notice an increase in visitors touching the artworks. It’s usually nothing malicious. Anyone can forget for a moment the universal but unspoken rules of museum etiquette and reach out to feel the surface of something. I get it. That is the power of art. Like a magic trick, the research inspires: how did they do it? Is that real? What is this made of? Indeed, the urge to use multiple senses when experiencing art is completely natural and quite common. Film and theater combine elements of image and sound to make us feel like we are part of the story. The culinary arts stimulate our senses of taste and smell. Music is also more than just an auditory experience. Rap and rock performances often include dance, lasers, lights, fireworks, smoke machines, and clothing fashions to entice the eye and ear. The different materials and textures of the visual arts almost beg to be touched. If seeing is believing, touching is confirmation.

Museum rental is a recipe for disaster
Catering Boxes for Rental at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Unfortunately, we cannot combine the senses when we are engaged in visual arts. We may look, but never touch. That’s because the kind of work you find in an art museum is unique. That is, visual art is not reproducible. (Although there may be multiple prints or photos in a series, they are usually limited editions.) Unlike comparable institutions such as libraries, art museums have unique works of art that cannot be loaned. Books, movies and music are mass produced and reproducible. And as kitchen recipes are, sheet music can revive a song to be consumed forever by the listener. Not so with the visual or plastic arts. Once a work of art is damaged or destroyed, that’s it – it’s diminished or lost forever. Museum restorers can clean, repair and repair artifacts within reasonable limits, but they can’t do much. Guards are the first line of defense against accidental or intentional damage to art and as such are an extension of a museum’s conservation team. The work can usually be quite slow as most visitors keep their distance from the art. But there are many cases where guards are absolutely necessary.

There are often ancient artifacts such as mosaics, statues and vases tucked away in and around the more communal areas of an art museum where drinking and eating is allowed.

A recipe for certain disasters adds booze to the equation. Art museums often rent out their facilities for private events. At first glance, this makes perfect sense, as museums provide the ideal setting for anniversaries, galas, reunions and weddings. The neoclassical or sleek modernist architecture of their indoor and outdoor spaces provides the perfect backdrop to photograph these special occasions. And of course there is the art! The areas where people are allowed to eat and drink – atriums, halls and courtyards – are usually far removed or cordoned off from the galleries with oil paintings on canvas and other more delicate works of art. However, there are often ancient artifacts such as mosaics, statues, and vases tucked away in and around the more communal areas of an art museum where drinking and eating is allowed. While it is extremely difficult to get wine stains out of canvas, it is not as easy as you might think to remove them from ceramic, marble or tile. Admittedly, there’s a touch of irony here in that many of the ancient artifacts that guards are paid to protect display scenes of drunken revelry across their surface: nymphs and satyrs slurping wine with Dionysian ecstasy in the images that appear on the work that we ask our guests to step away from.

For the most part, after-hours tenants behave just as well as daytime visitors. However, every once in a while there will be a very rowdy group that has clearly been in a museum for quite some time (if ever) and haphazardly touching everything. At such events, things usually go wrong: something breaks, there is a fistfight, or the DJ goes over the allowed decibel level causing some of the interior architecture to crack. I’ve seen all of the above in several places. At an event earlier this year, I witnessed a drag queen twerk on a World War II bronze statue of a mother and child looking anxiously at the sky, arms outstretched. The dancer was great. I only wish they hadn’t leaned against such a poignant piece of art while showing their stuff.

When we read the bizarre headline I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, we laugh. We laugh while unconsciously understanding the need to protect and preserve great works of art. We laugh because it’s so absurd to think that art museums would ever allow their patrons to interact with the art. We laugh while we mourn: Is nothing sacred?

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