Why Do Museum Patrons Hurt the Ones They Love?

In a letter responding to Anthony M. Amore’s editorial “No ‘Thomas Crown Affair’” in The New York Times about the recent robbery at the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Georgia Museum of Art guard Ed Tant acknowledged the very real threat posed by thieves, but fingered a very different, less publicized, but more insidiously silent danger to art in museums—museum patrons. After 12 years on the job, Tant describes his primary everyday task as “protecting the art from the art lovers.” From intentional vandalism to accidental encounters with masterpieces, why do museum patrons hurt the ones they love?


Amore, director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (victim of the infamous 1990 heist that saw both a Vermeer and a Rembrandt disappear) and author with Tom Mashberg of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, cuts right to the heart of the Thomas Crown Affair-esque myth of the glamorous world of art thieves. For as much planning that goes into seizing the art, very little goes into actually selling the art. “[T]here are very few people with enough cash to purchase a masterpiece –even for pennies on the dollar –that they can never show anyone,” Amore explains. “Once an art thief realizes this, he turns to other endeavors. Meanwhile, the stolen treasures lie dormant in a garage or crawl space until he figures out what to do with them.” As easy as it is to fault museum security, it’s even easier to overlook the basic museum mission of providing public access to masterpieces. If security were the primary goal, there are plenty of impregnable vaults to be had. Few security situations challenge experts in the field like a priceless piece of art openly displayed.

It’s that open display of art that creates a challenge beyond the headline-grabbing art thefts and even the headline-grabbing vandals. The recent Rothko vandalism at the Tate and the outrageous rewarding of an exhibition to a Picasso-defacing artist mark just two worst-case scenarios for museum security who can’t reasonably be expected to be everywhere at once when irrationality (and sometimes outright insanity) strikes. “Even standing too close to paintings can cause damage from human breath and accidental scratching with hat brims or eyeglass frames,” Tant points out. (From now on, I’ll hold my breath when I go in for a closer view.) We don’t mean to hurt the art, but our very presence—the very air we breathe—slowly destroys the works we love. Humidity controls can only protect the art so much from the people who pay the admission to keep the (art-friendly) lights on.

Some of my most fearful moments as a parent have come when taking my kids to art museums, not because they’re out of control, but because they’re so enthusiastic about the art that they could “overlove” something. Art, especially sculpture, naturally invites touch, but we need to control that impulse if we want something to appreciate now and, more importantly, later. When I took my Alex to a museum event tailored to children, the guide told the children to hold their big person’s hand to keep them from touching the art. If only every big person had as diligent a hand-holder as my son, the job of museum guards such as Tant would be so much easier.

Perhaps museum patrons should receive some education before entering galleries. It’s always been assumed that people knew the rules, but can we still safely make that assumption? I’m not saying treat people like overly inquisitive children, but rather as people who may be new to the museum experience and genuinely interested in the safety of the art. Maybe it would look like the instructional videos played pre-flight showing the proper use of air masks and where the exits are? Whatever shape such education would take, I think that people really need an introduction to this world that we no longer get in schools or from parents. I’ll never erase from my memory the sight of a man years ago vigorously making a point to a woman about some ancient Egyptian wall paintings by tapping directly onto the surface of the several thousand year old art. Despite the beeping sound accompanying each tap and the frantic guards hurriedly descending upon him, for almost a full minute that man was passionately appreciating and simultaneously damaging the subject before him. With just a little self-awareness of the consequences of our actions, we don’t need to hurt the art we love.

The unusual way magic mushrooms evolved

It's got more to do with sending insects on terrifying trips than it does making Phish sound good.

Surprising Science
  • Fungi species that produce psilocybin—the main hallucinogenic ingredient in "magic" mushrooms—aren't closely related to one another.
  • Researchers have discovered that the way these fungi independently gained the ability to produce psilocybin is because of horizontal gene transfer.
  • Based on how uncommon horizontal gene transfer is in mushroom-producing fungi and the types of fungi that produce psilocybin, it seems likely that the hallucinogenic chemical is meant to be scrambled the brains of insects competing with fungi for food.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The minimum wage debate rages on
  • The same study authors in 2017 famously argued that raising the wage to $15/hr. in Seattle and Tacoma actually cost jobs
  • This study says something else, though study authors are quick to say they don't necessarily contradict each other. Ummm ...
Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less

White House slams socialism in new report

The 72-page report makes a case against modern policy proposals like "Medicare for All" and free college tuition.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The report comes from the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), which is run by professional economists.
  • It attempts to make direct connections between modern-day progressives and past socialist figures like Stalin and Mao.
  • The report comes in the wake of other explicitly anti-socialist sentiments expressed by the Trump administration.
Keep reading Show less

Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman on U.S. Supreme Court, has dementia

Her husband died in 2009 of the disease.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • She was a deciding vote on a number of cases that came before the court.
  • Watch her interview from 2015 about her upbringing and desire to see more women in all parts of government.
Keep reading Show less

Why the college dropout myth can hurt your prospects

The road from college dropout to billionaire is paved with an overwhelming amount of failures along the way.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Sensational news stories and anecdotes about people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates would have you believe that quitting school is the answer.
  • Many of these dropouts were already attending elite universities and either had incredible family connections or other professional backing.
  • College dropouts make up a slim minority of the world's richest and most powerful.
Keep reading Show less

Helping others improves your mood in two different ways

Want to feel better? Try helping others, but your motivation matters.

(Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Mind & Brain
  • A meta-analysis of studies on altruism reveals that giving of any kind makes us feel good, but that our brain knows if we are being altruistic or are looking for a reward.
  • This is the first study to separate findings on the brain's response to giving based on motivation.
  • This has implications for how to best reward those who help you, as misjudging their motivations may have negative effects.
Keep reading Show less

For girls, video games are a gateway to STEM degrees

Turns out those violent video games might be a blessing in disguise.

pixabay.com
Culture & Religion
  • Looking at data in the U.K. suggests that the more girls play video games, the greater the chances they'll pursue a STEM degree, regardless of what kind of game they play.
  • Currently, there is a dearth of women taking up STEM degrees.
  • Although it isn't clear whether there is a causal relationship here, encouraging girls to play more video games may also encourage them to study STEM subjects.
Keep reading Show less