Over the past month, chaos has erupted at museums in Europe as activists hurled foodstuffs at famous artworks and superglued their hands to gallery walls to protest fossil fuels. The most famous incident saw Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers get doused in tomato soup at London’s National Gallery. In an impassioned speech, two youthful protesters affiliated with Just Stop Oil decried climate complacency, asking if visitors “are more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” Copycat incidents have quickly ensued from Madrid and Berlin to Rome and Sydney.
None of the paintings were harmed—activists have so far only targeted paintings encased behind protective glazing—but the brazen acts quickly went viral and ignited fiery discourse about whether such attention-seeking protests are misdirected. The sheer shock value has certainly generated a frenzy of international headlines. “History has shown us that civil resistance works,” Phoebe Plummer, a Just Stop Oil protester, told NPR. “The reason I’m able to vote, go to university, and hopefully someday marry the person I love is because of people who have taken part in acts of civil resistance before me.”
Yet art critics and pundits have denounced the publicity stunts as misguided for recasting priceless artworks as political pawns (not to mention the silly stagecraft). The trend may also pave the way for less protected artworks to suffer irreparable damage at the hands of increasingly brazen and less scrupulous activists, which has compelled some museums to place pieces behind less accessible barriers. “The works put in danger belong to the world’s cultural heritage and need to be protected as well as our climate,” Olaf Zimmermann, director of the German Cultural Council, told Deutsche Welle. With heightened security potentially obfuscating the art, protesters may achieve the opposite.
“When you’re thinking about a problem as consequential as climate change, it’s tempting to grade for effort,” Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic. “Getting angry about climate change is the easy part; actually finding ways to cut carbon emissions, to disrupt the fossil-fuel-powered economy that has dominated since Monet, is something else. The soup protests don’t make sense, aren’t obviously justified by bank-shot social science, and—worst of all—they look bad. Humanity is already doing enough to tarnish its precious inheritance. We don’t need extra help.”
Museums haven’t resorted to desperate measures yet, but some of their new tactics are—no pun intended—alarming. Besides enacting “zero-bag” policies and reinforcing paintings behind glass, some cultural institutions have explored hiring ex-military pros to teach guards expert surveillance tactics. “It’s all about early detection,” says Amotz Brandes, a former member of the Israeli military whose California security training firm is instructing security guards on counter-maneuvers. When pressed for comment, officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum wouldn’t disclose their security plans, but experts agree that stateside institutions may soon be targeted next.
These heightened security interventions are costly—and endowments aren’t what they used to be, especially following the pandemic. Previously, most security budgets have been allocated to fortifying digital infrastructure to prevent heists. Steve Keller, a veteran museum security consultant, says designing elaborate, high-tech systems to combat hackers is a “constant battle.” But in the age of climate protests, he warns, “a museum might have to add $100,000 worth of additional security now for the next 20 years because [of] this incident. That’s money out of the educational program.”