One in all my favourite Onion headlines reads: “Struggling Museum Now Permitting Patrons to Contact Work.” The article’s featured picture depicts folks in a gallery doing simply that. A person within the background seems to be taking a portray off the wall, whereas a girl within the foreground rubs her face towards one other piece. A superfluous museum guard stands by merely watching. The caption explains, “Met officers really feel that a couple of smudged or punctured O’Keefe’s are a small value to pay for renewed curiosity within the arts.” The entire triumvirate — headline, picture, caption — creates the proper satirical pitch, eliciting rapid laughter. We all know that is improper, however why? Has the artwork world gone mad? Maybe the absurd state of affairs provokes us to surprise: Why can’t we contact the artwork in museums?
I’ve labored as a guard at a number of completely different artwork museums since 2001, and I can’t assist however discover an uptick in guests touching the paintings. It’s often nothing malicious. Anybody can momentarily overlook the common but unstated guidelines of museum etiquette and attain out to really feel the floor of one thing. I get it. That’s the facility of artwork. Like a magic trick, it conjures up investigation: How’d they try this? Is that actual? What’s this product of? Certainly, the urge to make use of a number of senses when experiencing artwork is completely pure and fairly widespread. Movie and theater mix parts of sight and sound to make us really feel as if we had been a part of the story. The culinary arts stimulate our senses of style and scent. Music, too, is extra than simply an aural expertise. Rap and rock performances typically embrace dance, lasers, lights, pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and clothes fashions to attract the attention and the ear. The assorted supplies and textures of visible artwork virtually beg to be touched. If seeing is believing, then touching is confirming.
Sadly, we can’t mix the senses when partaking with visible artwork. We might look, however by no means contact. That’s as a result of the form of work you discover in an artwork museum is certainly one of a form. That’s, visible artwork isn’t reproducible. (Whereas there could be a number of prints or pictures in a collection, they’re often restricted editions.) Not like related establishments like libraries, artwork museums maintain distinctive artworks, which can’t be taken out on mortgage. Books, motion pictures, and music are mass-produced and reproducible. And as recipes are to delicacies, sheet music can resurrect a music to be perennially consumed by the listener. Not so with the visible or plastic arts. As soon as a piece of visible artwork is broken or destroyed, that’s it — it has been diminished or misplaced eternally. Museum conservators can clear, repair, and restore artwork objects inside purpose however there’s solely a lot they’ll do. Guards characterize the primary line of protection towards the unintentional or intentional damaging of artwork and are, as such, an extension of a museum’s conservation group. The job could be pretty gradual more often than not as most guests maintain their distance from the artwork. However there are various cases when guards are completely needed.
A recipe for sure disasters provides booze to the equation. Artwork museums are likely to lease out their services for personal occasions. On the face of it, this makes excellent sense as museums supply the best setting for anniversaries, galas, reunions, and weddings. The neoclassical or austere modernist structure of their inside and exterior areas lends the proper backdrop to photographically doc these particular events. And, in fact, there’s the artwork! The areas the place individuals are allowed to eat and drink — atriums, halls, and courtyards — are often far eliminated or cordoned off from the galleries that maintain oil work on canvas and different extra delicate paintings. Nonetheless, there are sometimes historical artifacts like mosaics, statues, and vases which can be tucked in and across the extra communal areas of an artwork museum the place ingesting and consuming are allowed. Whereas this can be very tough to get wine stains out of canvas, it’s not as simple as you would possibly suppose to take away them from ceramics, marble, or tile. Admittedly, there’s a twist of irony right here in that lots of the historical artifacts guards are paid to guard depict scenes of drunken revelry throughout their surfaces: Nymphs and satyrs guzzle down wine with Dionysian ecstasy within the photographs that seem on the very work we ask company to step away from.
For essentially the most half, after-hours renters are as nicely behaved as daytime guests. Now and again although, there will probably be a really rowdy group who’ve clearly not been inside a museum in fairly a while (if ever) and indiscriminately contact all the pieces. Dangerous issues often go down at such occasions: One thing breaks, there’s a fistfight, or the DJ goes over the permitted decibel degree inflicting a portion of the inside structure to crack. I’ve seen the entire above at completely different locations. Throughout an occasion earlier this yr, I witnessed a drag queen twerk on a World Struggle II-era bronze of a mom and baby wanting up into the sky in anguish, arms outstretched. The dancer was nice. I simply wished they hadn’t leaned towards such a poignant murals whereas strutting their stuff.
Once we learn the outlandish headline I discussed initially of this piece, we giggle. We giggle whereas subconsciously understanding the crucial to guard and protect nice artworks. We giggle as a result of it’s so absurd to suppose that artwork museums would ever permit their patrons to manhandle the artwork. We giggle whereas lamenting: Is nothing sacred?