Last week, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art finally got to put Picasso’s The Actor back up on its gallery walls after a three-month hiatus. Where had it been? In the repair shop. In January, a patron lost her balance and fell into the 1904 painting, opening up a six-inch gash in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. Luckily, art restoration experts were able to repair the canvas in time for the Met’s large Picasso exhibit that opens on Tuesday.
While the thought of a guest clumsily tripping and damaging a piece may make art fans cringe, it’s more common than you’d think. Here are a few more tales of museum patrons and art lovers who accidentally harmed precious works of art.
Museums occasionally rake in some extra cash by hosting private events, and in 2006 the Milwaukee Art Museum opened its doors for a Clear Channel shindig that must have sounded reasonable at the time: Martinifest, a semiformal event where guests got all the martinis they could drink for a flat $30.
Anyone who’s ever been to an open-bar event can see where this one is headed. The crowd apparently had a deeper appreciation for gin and vermouth than for Picasso and Matisse, and things got predictably wild. By the end of the night, gin-soaked patrons had vomited on some of the works and even climbed on Gaston Lachaise’s large bronze sculpture, Standing Woman. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran this gem of a quote from an eyewitness to the sculpture-scaling: “They were standing on it, grabbing the boobs, and somebody was just taking pictures with a cell phone.”
Abstract expressionism is apparently the most irresistible kid-friendly force since Elmo, and something about Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon really speaks to young people. Over the span of just a few months, two different tots got their mitts on the painting at London’s Tate Modern. In the first incident, a child grabbed the canvas, which damaged the work by leaving a series of small dents in the piece. Three months later, a two-year-old snuck underneath the barrier that had been set up in front of the painting and left handprints on the work.
Bored toddlers aren’t the only danger to the Tate’s collections, though. Anish Kapoor’s 2003 sculpture Ishi’s Light sustained damages when a film crew cameraman banged into it with his tripod in 2007. The tripod chipped a hunk out of the fiberglass, resin, and lacquer work.
A few little chips and tears seem trifling compared to the indignity Carl Andre’s 1980 sculpture Venus Forge suffered at the Tate in 2007. A child became queasy while visiting the gallery, and vomited on part of the sculpture instead of making a beeline for the bathroom. Several of the work’s steel and copper plates had to be removed for some (pretty disgusting) restoration work.
French painter Ary Scheffer’s 1854 work The Temptation of Christ is still in one piece, but the same can’t be said for its antique frame. A curious child broke several pieces off of the frame while the painting was on display at National Museums Liverpool.
In February 2006, the curatorial staff at the Detroit Institute of Arts made an alarming discovery: someone had slapped a hunk of gum on Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract painting The Bay. After some investigation, museum administrators learned that a 12-year-old boy had affixed the chewed gum on the painting during a school visit to the museum. (Something’s telling us that the incident ruined future field trips for everyone.) Luckily, the museum found the gum quickly and was able to remove it, even using a magnifying glass to pull remaining bits of gum off of the individual strands of the canvas weave.
If you think encasing a museum’s collection behind barbed wire might help alleviate some of this unwanted touching, think again; it might just make things worse. Consider Tracey Emin’s 2005 work Self Portrait: Bath. One element of the work involves a neon light wrapped in barbed wire, which led to a problem when a visitor to Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art got a little too close while viewing the piece. The barbed wire got caught in the visitor’s clothing, so when he walked away part of the work dragged along behind him. The museum ended up spending $2,000 to repair the damages.
This one could have been a hilarious pratfall if it hadn’t done so much unfunny damage. In 2006, Nick Flynn was visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when he tripped over his untied shoelaces and took a tumble down the museum’s main staircase. Flynn flailed his arms in an attempt to catch his balance, but the stairs didn’t have a handrail, just smooth marble walls.
The first thing the 42-year-old Flynn managed to catch in his attempt to right himself was a 300-year-old Chinese vase that was displayed unprotected in a windowsill. Unfortunately, when Flynn hit the vase, it ricocheted into two other vases from the same era of the Qing dynasty. The stumble ended up smashing all three vases – which were worth around £100,000 – before Flynn came to a rest.
Pretty embarrassing for Flynn, right? The humiliation didn’t stop there. Two months after the incident, he was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage and even spent a night in jail after museum officials began to worry that he’d smashed the vases on purpose. In the end, the museum didn’t press charges against Flynn, and the restored vases are back on display…in a custom-built case to protect them from any further falls.
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