One of my favorite onion headlines is, “Fighting Museum Now Allows Visitors to Touch Paintings.” The article’s featured image 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 is rubbing her face on another piece. A superfluous museum attendant is only visibly aside. The caption explains, “Met officials feel that a few smudged or punctured O’Keefes is a small price to pay for a renewed interest in the art.” The entire triumvirate—headline, image, caption—creates the perfect satirical tone and immediately triggers laughter. We know that’s wrong, but why? Has the art world gone mad? Perhaps the absurd scenario provokes us to ask: Why can’t we touch the art in museums?
I’ve worked as a warden in various art museums since 2001 and I can’t help but notice an increase in the number of visitors touching the artworks. It’s usually nothing malicious. Anyone can forget the universal but unspoken rules of museum etiquette for a moment and reach out to feel the surface of something. I get it. That is the power of art. Like a magic trick, it encourages investigation: how did they do it? Is that real? What is this made of? In fact, the urge to use multiple senses when experiencing art is completely natural and widespread. Film and theater combine visual and audio elements to make us feel part of the story. The art of cooking stimulates our sense of taste and smell. Music is more than just a listening experience. Rap and rock performances often involve dance, lasers, lights, pyrotechnics, smoke machines and fads to tempt the eye and the ear. The various materials and textures of the fine arts almost beg to be touched. If seeing is believing, then touch is confirmation.
Unfortunately, when dealing with fine arts, we cannot connect the senses. We can look, but never touch. That’s because the type of work you find in an art museum is unique. That is, fine art is not reproducible. (Although there may be multiple prints or photographs in a series, they are usually limited editions.) Unlike similar institutions such as libraries, art museums own unique works of art that are not available for loan. Books, films and music are mass-produced and reproducible. And like recipes for the kitchen, sheet music can revitalize a song consumed over and over again by the listener. Not so with the visual or graphic arts. Once a work of fine art has been damaged or destroyed, that’s it – it’s been reduced or lost forever. Museum conservators can clean, repair, and repair art objects within reason, but they can only do a limited amount. Wardens represent 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 be quite slow most of the time as most visitors keep their distance from the art. But there are many instances where guards are absolutely necessary.
A recipe for certain disasters adds alcohol to the equation. Art museums usually rent out their space for private events. At first glance, this makes perfect sense, because museums offer the ideal setting for anniversaries, galas, class reunions and weddings. The classical or simply modernist architecture of its interior and exterior spaces offers the perfect backdrop for photographically documenting 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 from or cordoned off from the galleries that display oil paintings on canvas and other more delicate works of art. However, there are often ancient artifacts such as mosaics, statues, and vases hidden in and around an art museum’s common areas, where drinking and eating are permitted. While it is extremely difficult to remove wine stains from canvas, removing them from ceramic, marble or tile is not as easy as you might think. Admittedly, there is a certain irony here that many of the ancient artifacts they are paid to protect depict scenes of drunken feasting on their surfaces: nymphs and satyrs sipping wine with Dionysian ecstasy in the images that appear on the very works that we ask guests to step away.
For the most part, out-of-hours tenants behave just as well as day visitors. However, every once in a while there will be a very rowdy group who obviously haven’t been to a museum in a while (if ever) and will be touching everything at random. Bad things usually happen at such events: something breaks, there is a scuffle or the DJ goes beyond the permitted volume and lets part of the interior design rip. I’ve seen all of the above in different places. During an event earlier this year, I saw a drag queen twerk on a WWII-era bronze of a mother and child, terrified, arms outstretched, looking up at the sky. The dancer was great. I only wish they hadn’t leaned against such a poignant piece of art while strutting their stuff.
When we read the fancy headline I mentioned at the beginning of this article, we have to laugh. We laugh while subconsciously 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 mistreat the art. We laugh and lament: Is nothing sacred?