13th December 2010
An Appeal from Poland
ArtWatch UK has received an appeal for assistance from art historians and restorers in Krakow (see documents, right) to help oppose a planned loan of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to a special exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2011- 2012. We feel honoured by the request and are entirely supportive of the appeal, the aims of which are legitimate, well-founded and highlight very serious problems that are widespread and far-reaching.
The essential case being put in Krakow against this proposal is threefold.
1 That this particular painting is artistically invaluable and irreplaceable and should, therefore, incur no unnecessary risks of loss or destruction;
2 That this intrinsically fragile work should not be jeopardised by the inevitable physical traumas and risks that attend movements across countries in varieties of vehicles and environments;
3 That the especial role and rootedness in Polish cultural and historical life that this work has acquired should be cherished and honoured, not violated.
It is disturbing here that the judgements of prestigious scholars and conservators should have been disregarded by the Krakow authorities, not only on the merits of the case, but because such an over-ruling extends geographically a culturally destructive shift of power that has been taking place for some years in the international museum world. The recent ascendency of commercial interests over professional/cultural/heritage priorities, in our view, threatens not only the physical well-being of works of art but the provision of conditions necessary for their proper appreciation and enjoyment. Further, these international museum-world power realities have stultifying and corrosive effects on professional discourse in art. It might be helpful to this appeal from Poland to illustrate here the nature of the risks.
In 1993 the New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman highlighted the professional self-censorship that modern museum practices enforce:
“no museum, either as lender or borrower, wants the taint of irresponsibility or carelessness. Although conservators, curators and directors privately raise doubts all the time about fragile and important works of art being moved around by other institutions, they virtually never speak out. When they do, it is as one chorus: nothing goes wrong where they are.”
Opposition to such self-censorship has been central to ArtWatch’s campaigning since its inception. We have known that opposition to institutionally disruptive but lucrative “special” travelling exhibitions is far greater than is generally appreciated.
It should be said at the outset that we fully recognize that in this particular dispute, the director of the intended loan “beneficiary” museum (the National Gallery), Nicholas Penny, has himself expressed brave opposition to the “blockbuster” phenomenon and its intrinsic risks. We recognise, too, the great financial and political pressures placed on museum directors to increase revenues from temporary – and paying – exhibitions. In his preface to Francis Haskell’s seminal book “The Ephemeral Museum ~ Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition” (Yale, 2000), Dr Penny noted that there was much evidence to make one uneasy about both the risks involved in transporting great works of art and the politics that drive such risk-taking. He cited Prof. Haskell’s recognition in 1990 that although:
“it can be argued that in exceptional circumstances such unease should be suppressed”, when “decisions to lend pictures are taken as a consequence of international politics or artistic diplomacy (that is, the hope…of winning loans of comparable significance in exchange) unease should turn to outrage.”
Dr Penny further noted that no public rebuttal was made of Prof. Haskell’s published case (originally in the New York Review of Books, 16 August 1990) “since it would only have brought to public notice the near accidents of recent years and might have prompted public statements from other senior figures.” Recognising that although at least one other eminent art historian (Sir Ernst Gombrich) had expressed misgivings about the transportation of great masterpieces, Penny added that “museum employees are obliged to stifle their anxieties…”
Sir Ernst Gombrich had revealed those anxieties to us five years earlier (letter of 30 December 1995):
“…When I was in Vienna in October, the Kunsthistorisches Museum was under enormous pressure to lend Vermeer’s Artist in his Studio, indeed in the end the Queen of the Netherlands rang the President of Austria (who had no idea what she was talking about!)…”
On that occasion – and specifically on the warning testimony of international experts like Sir Ernst and a German restorer – the museum’s resistance to intense political pressure was successful. The picture was spared risks and traumas. But not for long: in 2001 the painting travelled over land and sea to the National Gallery in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum as part of a Vermeer-fest that replicated the joint 1995-96 Mauritshuis/National Gallery of Washington blockbuster. The London/New York blockbuster had been made possible by an indemnity against damages from the US Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities and the sponsorship of the firm Ernst and Young.
The Metropolitan Museum is proud of its own awesome political clout. The museum’s present director, Thomas P. Campbell, boasted, when still a curator of tapestries, that
“no one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestry we had a few years ago…The politics involved, the financing involved, the leverage and the expertise: No one else had that. We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well we didn’t bribe of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loans of these objects” (- “Museum ~ Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, N.Y. 2007).
A former director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, celebrated his own tenacity in pursuit of foreign masterpieces in his 1993 book “Making the Mummies Dance” (p. 190):
“The discussions about a masterwork – we were asking for a Breughel – bogged down at once with a lecture from Fritzie [Fritzie Klauner, the director of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] on the perils of sending works of art abroad. She allowed us to hang around her office for over an hour, gazing disapprovingly at us as we begged, and only then told us what we had to do to secure a loan. All requests had to be personally approved by the minister of foreign affairs, a man by the name of Kurt Waldheim [a former Nazi and the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations].
“Somewhat to our surprise, we got an appointment with Waldheim right away. He reminded me of a shiny lizard…He suggested lunch at one of Vienna’s most luxurious restaurants to discuss the ‘highly delicate issue of loans.’ We got nowhere. Waldheim suggested that we meet for dinner that evening at another of Vienna’s most expensive restaurants to discuss the problem further. He brought his wife, who spoke three words the entire evening. We advanced no further. He suggested we join him the next night – at our expense- for another dinner at still another of Vienna’s most expensive restaurants. Again no progress was being made until Ted [Ted Rousseau, Hoving’s own appointed Deputy-Director of the Met] invited him to come to New York to attend the gala dinner of the ‘Masterpieces’ show, all expenses paid. Waldheim gave us his sly lizard’s smile and asked, ‘What precise picture you wanted? Some Breughel? It is altogether possible the loan can be arranged.’”
If power lies increasingly with administrators and not experts, we would still hope that the authorities in Krakow might reflect fully on the risks they are presently considering running. These comprise four specific categories: outright loss through crashes or fires; damage during transit; thefts during transit; damage during installation and “de-installation”. We cite cautionary examples of each.
Outright losses (and recent near misses)
In 1993 a Boucher painting was lost in an exhibition travelling from New York to Detroit to Paris. On 2 September 1998, a Swissair jet carrying a Picasso oil painting (“Le Peintre”) valued at £1m and a second unidentified painting crashed and disintegrated in the sea off Nova Scotia. In 2007 a China Airlines Boeing 737-800 was destroyed by fire shortly after landing in Japan. Passengers and crew escaped narrowly but all cargo perished. In 1983-84 267 works of Turner’s were dispatched in wooden crates in two lorries to be carried on consecutive days from Dover to Calais on board Sealink’s ferry The Spirit of Free Enterprise. On 6 March 1987 her sister ship, The Herald of Free Enterprise , carrying 47 lorries capsized and sank with a loss of 191 lives in calm seas. It was reported on 12 July 2007 that a plot to blow up (by car bomb) a Brittany Ferries vessel, the Pont Aven, carrying thousands of British tourists, had been thwarted when an ETA terrorist was arrested while carrying detonators for a van packed with explosives. An earlier ETA attempt to destroy a ferry leaving Valencia failed when the intended van-bomb broke down and had to be abandoned.
In 2003, following the arrest of a terrorist with an SA7 anti-aircraft missile, British Airways suspended all flights into Saudi Arabia for three weeks.
In 2003, the fine art insurance specialists Hiscox disclosed that insurance premiums had increased by 25 per cent in the two years that followed the events of 11 September 2001. The current threats to airlines from on-board terrorists or in-cargo devices need no description.
In November 2004, a curator at the Wallace Collection, Stephen Duffy, warned that:
“It is only a matter of time before a major work is lost when a plane crashes or a boat sinks.”
Tacit acknowledgement of travelling exhibition risks, is evident in exhibition organisers own arrangements. On a transatlantic tour through Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Seattle, three of Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels from the Florence Baptistery doors travelled on separate planes because “They’re too valuable to risk a crash”. (There are more Ghiberti door panels – 28 – than Leonardo paintings). Similarly, 20 terracotta figures sent to the British Museum’s Chinese Warriors blockbuster were flown in on two planes “to reduce risk”. But as recently as 1997 the British Museum flew all of its Graeco-Roman encaustic portraits to Athens in a single plane. An entire and priceless class of objects at the Museum might have been lost in a single disaster.
Damage and risks during transit
In 2004, the art insurance company AXA-Art disclosed that it alone pays out around £3m a year for art damaged in transit. The true scale of damages is far larger, as museums and galleries generally repair (undisclosed) travel damage to works themselves to avoid increased insurance premiums and embarrassing publicity. Often the discovery of injuries triggers inter-museum disputes.
In 2000 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on” to be damaged and “extremely unstable” on return from the Tate Gallery. Despite having been “glazed and sealed against changes in relative humidity, the picture [had] reacted significantly to the voyage” and lost flakes of paint. A Tate spokeswoman said in response to disclosure of the damage:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.”
That picture had previously been considered one of the few Turner masterpieces in good condition.
It is often misleadingly claimed that modern technology has eliminated the risks of travel. In 2001a Rembrandt (“Portrait of an Elderly Woman”) insured for $12m, and sent from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in a “climate-controlled container”, suffered a gash nearly 3 inches by 1.4 inches. A protracted dispute over liability and insurance compensation ensued. The Pushkin Museum claimed that the case must have been dropped en route:
“If it was badly packed, it would be a different type of damage. The painting has a double canvas. To rip through several inches of it, there had to be a blow that allowed the picture to fall from the frame.”
In 2006, the British Museum sent 251 Assyrian objects – including its entire, incalculably important, fragile, wall-mounted Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings in foam filled wooden crates in two cargo jets to Shanghai for the “Assyria: Art and Empire” exhibition. The Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, claimed:
“It’s easier to transport these big valuable objects now – but it’s just as important to be certain they’ll be safe at the other end.”
The other end can be a long way away. The only flight capable of transporting all of the massive carvings to Shanghai left from Luxembourg to where the crated objects had to be moved by lorry/ferry/lorry. The planes stopped in Azerbaijan during their 16 hours flights – giving a total of four landings and four take-offs each on the round trip. On arrival in Shanghai, it was discovered that the recipient museum’s low doorways and inadequate lifts required that the crates with the largest carvings be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs” said Darrel Day, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler. “Even then we had to unpack three of the crates to get a bit more clearance…[one carving] was still too tall, so we had to lay him down on his side”. When the collection was finally unpacked (delay had occurred because a replacement had to be found for the Chinese museum’s ancient unsafe forklift truck), it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done” and that a support had broken off one of the carved reliefs. Nic Lee, head of the Museum’s Stone, Wall Paintings and Mosaics Conservation Section, said: “that was a bit of nineteenth-century restoration that I’d been wanting to get rid of for ages, anyway”.
A restorer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that within the museum world there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” when considering works for loans. There would certainly now seem to be a systemic tolerance of failures in the movement of great art works. Forward planning seems an art yet to be achieved by many travel-happy museums (- a wider use of tape measures might help). An incoming Morgan Stanley sponsored exhibition of Chinese terracotta figures at the British Museum produced another art-handling pantomime. The more than two dozen wooden crates required were delayed for two days in Beijing because they would not fit into the holds of the two chartered cargo planes. When they finally arrived at the British Museum, they would not pass through the door of the round Reading Room (from which Paul Hamlyn’s gifted library had been evicted for the six months duration of the show). Even after the Reading Room’s main door frame had been removed, the largest crates still could not enter the temporary exhibition space built above the famous circular desks of the library, and had to be unpacked outside the exhibition space in the Great Court.
In 2006, the British Museum loaned over four thousand objects.
Mr MacGregor has said that he sees no reason why any work might not be loaned abroad providing it can be moved “safely”. The difficulties such arrangements generate were discussed by one of his predecessors, David Wilson, in his “The British Museum: A History”, (The British Museum Press, 2002 – pp 334-336, “Exhibitions – A Vicious Circle?”). Sir David admits that objects occasionally get damaged and sometimes “go missing” and that the number of loans from the Museum doubled between 1985 and 2000, in which year 114 separate loans of individual items or groups of objects were made within Britain and a hundred foreign loans sometimes of only two or three “objects of high importance” but sometimes with large groups of images – usually prints and drawings that are highly sensitive to light.
Although less spectacular than actual crashes, the net incremental effects of widespread and repeated travel cause much harm. Every loaned painting is subjected to vibrations and changes in atmosphere that cause stress to its support and its support/paint interface. A late member of ArtWatch UK, a former airline pilot (and picture owner), Aidrian Shann, explained the risks to us in these terms:
“It is not a simple subject. For example, it could be argued that the Comet crashes are irrelevant. They are not in this sense: the problem arose because of the continual flexing of the weak points of the fuselage (e.g. the windows). So what? Well, the artwork (as indeed ourselves) will be subject to a fairly rapid change of altitude; in my time a typical ‘cabin altitude’ would be set between 6000 & 8000 ft [i.e. having been so selected by the crew] and there will be continual cycling of pressure to maintain this cabin altitude; don’t forget one will be climbing initially, descending later, and throughout the cruise stepping-up to a higher altitude so as to maintain fuel economy – all such changes in altitude being subject to ATC [Air Traffic Control?] and to weight of aircraft as the fuel is burnt off. (When I flew the Boeing 707, max. fuel was 72 tons in weight @ take/off, most of which would be burnt off by arrival over destination.)”
“I cannot believe that paintings are not likely to be adversely affected by changes in altitude (or pressure), likewise by varying temperatures (possibly in the hold v. low) & by an uncertain humidity, esp. with rapid changes in local climate @ points of departure & arrival [again esp. with cabin/hold cooling in hot, humid climates.] “Then – where I am not up to date, but it was being introduced years ago – there is the commercial pressure to vary these very parameters so as to economise on fuel. “So heaven knows exactly what (beneficial?) effect this hazard has on these rare irreplaceable prizes in our civilisation. Anyway, ignorance is NOT excusable, surely, for curators or whoever who take upon themselves the hubris of moving these wonderful things round the world.”
On another occasion Mr Shann put it like this:
"The crunch may really lie in what is not a one off. The dangers lie in the cabin and the hold air pressures which may be the equivalent of 10,000ft (I guess around 3,000 metres) and in the electrically charged atmosphere [because] with the aircraft itself being metallic, safety requires bonding (so there is no electrical discharge within the aircraft.) It works,” he added, while wondering “what effect must this be having on old masters?”
On 12 July 2001, when bringing ten panels from Massacio’s Pisa Altarpiece to the National Gallery in London, the then director, Neil MacGregor, claimed that it had become safe at some point in “the past five to ten years” to jet works of art around the world because little gadgets in modern packing cases alert handlers to “any movement in the container”. He did not explain what a handler might then do if so alerted in mid-flight.
In 2000, pages of the Book of Kells were damaged by vibration when the precious illuminated manuscript was flown from Ireland to Australia.
In 2004 a Raphael was found, on arrival for the National Gallery’s“Raphael: From Urbino to Rome” show, to have suffered “a raised crack” in transit.
The effects of vibration on old fragile paintings have been little studied. How might they be? Would any responsible curator permit an old master painting to be fixed inside a container and shaken variously and erratically for hours on end?
The fashion for dispatching even the most famous and fragile works of art accelerated greatly in the 1960s. In 1962 France’s first Minister of Culture, André Malraux, flamboyantly made a personal loan of the “Mona Lisa” to the President of the United States, Jack Kennedy, and his wife Jacqueline. Despite fierce opposition from the Louvre Museum’s conservators, the centuries old, crack-susceptible panel crossed the Atlantic on the S.S. France and was put on public show by the Presidential couple first in the National Gallery Washington and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, early in 1963. At both venues people queued for hours to snatch a glimpse as they shuffled past the picture, marshalled by guards to prevent any loitering.
The exercise was deemed a great popular, political and technical success: several millions of people had “seen” the most famous painting in the world; Europe’s finest and most revered had embraced America’s most gilded and dynamic; and, despite being subject to the strains and risks of travel, a precious and fragile panel painting had, by courtesy of state-of-the-art packaging technology, suffered no discernible harm (but see below).
That success spawned imitation – if even the “Mona Lisa” could be moved great distances with impunity, why not anything? It only recently emerged that while in the “safe-keeping” of a high security vault at the Metropolitan Museum the painting had been drenched overnight by an undetected faulty sprinkler system.
In its annual report of 1975 (p. 60), the National Gallery (London) defended its own (sometime) decisions not to loan:
“Because of the interest shown in our refusal to lend five of the seven paintings requested by the Turner Bicentenary exhibition…(at the Royal Academy), it is appropriate to say something about our policy when deciding whether to lend or not.
“Our primary responsibility is to act as the guardians of the paintings we buy or are entrusted with by gift or loan. Masterpieces should not be put at unnecessary risk in the temporary interest of policy (as when the French Government sent the ‘Mona Lisa’ to America and Tokyo, or the Vatican dispatched dispatched the Michelangelo ‘Pietà’ to New York), profit, patriotism, scholarship or pleasure. It is against the background of this general principle that we discuss, month by month, requests for loans brought to us by the Director. Among the points to be considered are, then: the condition of the painting; its dossier of previous travels (if any); the significance of the exhibition for which it is requested and the weight of its own contribution there; the security measures adopted by the organisers; whether the exhibition is a static or a migrating one; the importance of the painting in itself, in the context of where it hangs, and in the importance of the eyes of our visitors.
“It is true that, stimulated by increased scientific knowledge of the dangers involved in movement and changes of light and humidity, our attention has been focussed more sharply than ever in the last decades on the vulnerability of works of art. That the caution this induces is not misplaced is suggested by the fact that one of the two Turners that we did lend came back with a slight split, some blistering and a very small area of paint loss- trifling wounds, and in no way reflecting on the care lavished on loans by the organisers of the exhibition, but requiring, all the same, remedial treatment before the painting could be rehung.”
Turner was again on call for loans five years later. On 21 December 1980 The Observer reported (“Tate Turners crack”) that many turner paintings were too fragile to travel abroad – scarcely 100 out of 279 paintings were thought to be sound enough “to risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. The Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, said “Paintings are not designed to travel, but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect.”
Accidental damage is not the only risk incurred when transporting art.
Every year, more than £2bn of art is stolen, some of which is art on the move.
In November 2006, the Toledo Museum’s Goya, “Children with a Cart” was stolen en route for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In 1994 the Tate Gallery loaned two Turner paintings insured for £24m to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. “We will not be sending a courier”, Tate director, Sir Nicholas Serota, told the museum, “but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/ depalletisation of the cases at Frankfurt [airport] and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle”.
In what was clearly an “inside job” the pictures were stolen from the Frankfurt museum on the day of arrival and only returned to the Tate in December 2002 after payment of a £3m ransom to the thieves in 2000.
In December 2010 thieves broke into a warehouse and drove off with a van filled with £5m-worth of works by Picasso, Botero and Eduardo Chillida being returned to Spain from a loan to Germany. Police said that the robbery had all the hallmarks of “an inside job”. Police/Museum/Criminal relationships are a vexed subject. In the February 2001 The Art Newspaper, it was reported that Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General had claimed that the German police had infiltrated the gang (“a group of particularly nasty Serbs”) that had stolen the two Tate Turners, but had “then loused up on the recovery operation”. There are grounds for suspecting a de facto going-rate “reward” of ten or fifteen percent of a work’s insurance value in order to effect a recovery and avoid a full pay-out. If so, the Krakow Leonardo, insured at €300m, would present, on its being moved to London, a potentially easily realisable haul of €30-45m to thieves.
Even when stolen art works are recovered, they are typically damaged as a result of careless handling. Two Picassos recently recovered from a theft in Paris were found to have been rolled so tightly that the paint had flaked. Two stolen Munch paintings were found on recovery in 2006 to have been scraped, punctured and to have suffered dislodged paint.
Quite apart from risks to works of art, the costs of mounting blockbuster exhibitions are high to art institutions themselves and, especially to their curators and museum staffs. By tradition – and for the best possible reasons – museums employ curators to curate their collections. To do this work appropriately curators must be both highly knowledgeable in their fields and intimately familiar with and attentive to their own collections. By tradition this has not been highly remunerated employment but it has carried very high job satisfaction and rightly high esteem. Curators used to occupy places at the summit of museum hierarchies because their work was seen to be crucial to the central purpose of the museum: studying and tending to the collections. In modern times all manner of extraneous roles and requirements have been attached to museums and the proportion of resources devoted to serious curatorship has shrunk dramatically. Arguably the most perniciously destructive of these changes has been the rise of the “Education” nexus within the museum. A stand-alone education department in a museum is at best a parasitical construct if not a positively alien one. The collection and the quiet undisturbed contemplation of its contents is itself the true educational core of the institution. Professional educationists inevitably bring intrusive professional ideological baggage that insinuates itself between the art and the viewer/student. The one-on-one engagement in tranquillity that museums have traditionally permitted may be a great privileging luxury, but it was the very purpose of the institution in the first place to make available to all the possibilities that had once belonged only to the few.
The rise of the temporary, would-be blockbuster exhibition has done the greatest possible great harm to museums intended “core” purposes. The achievement of a commercially successful exhibition requires a serious realignment of museum policy and internal priorities. The public relations and publicity departments must flourish. The institutional face presented to the world necessarily becomes more akin to that of the fairground barker hustling for passing trade. Internally, the energies of curators are hi-jacked onto projects for which their skills may not be particularly well-suited or on which they may be insultingly wasted.
As we have seen, large international exhibitions require levels of planning, expertise and expenditure that commonly exceed those of even the greatest and richest museums. Massively high costs must be spread. Partner museums must be found before the horse-trading can even begin. Committees must be set up. Sponsors/backers must be found. The sponsor is invariably presented to the public as saviour/benefactor and indulged with special events, dinners and private viewing which transfer patronage away from the museum itself – which can often end up resembling an up-market scenic set for a voracious corporate entity. The expansion of special privileged viewings is creating a two-tier policy: pampering for the select few; unspeakable over-crowding for the paying punters.
Special, temporary exhibitions may have long gestations but their assembling and “dis-assembling” are inevitably occasions of haste and confusion. A document recently came into being (see below) which sheds light on the destructive institutional costs of the high-profile temporary exhibition mania.
On 21 January 2008, a Renaissance painting owned by the National Gallery (London) was dropped and smashed during the de-installation of a temporary exhibition: Renaissance Siena: Art for a City. From our access to National Gallery papers we appreciate that this was by no means the first such incident, but it was, perhaps, the first to be publicly acknowledged.
It was reported in the online published minutes of a gallery board meeting held on 8 February 2008 that the (then) Chairman, Peter Scott, had warmly welcomed the new director, Nicholas Penny. The occasion might have seemed like a baptism by fire: lurking under the heading “Pictures for treatment”, the minutes disclosed that:
“The Board were shown ‘Marcia’ by Domenico Beccafumi (NG 6369). The Director of Conservation confirmed that, following damage to the painting which had occurred while removing the painting from the wall, he had decided after consultation with the Chairman that repair work should start immediately, without the Board seeing it first, in order to avoid possible further damage. The restoration work was now complete, and the Board agreed that the painting was ready to go back on display. The Board thanked the Director of Conservation and his department for the work they had carried out on the painting.
“The Director of Conservation reported that an audit report had been commissioned to investigate the causes of the accident which had led to the damage, and to recommend any changes of procedures or other changes which might be required to guard against future incidents of this type. The report would be considered by the Board’s Audit Committee in March and the Audit committee would report to the April Board.
“The Director confirmed that the damage had been reported to the DCMS and would be reported the MLA [Museums, Libraries and Archives Council].”
In our Spring 2008 Journal No.23, we ran three news items on blockbusters:
1 “Museums now have to do blockbuster shows to get the people in, “Paul Williamson, of the art transporting firm Constantine, said on BBC Radio 4’s the World Tonight on November fifth , adding “They’re under financial pressure to tour the exhibitions: so various exhibitions may undertake a five, ten or fifteen-venue tour around the world.” On the same programme, a spokesman for the art insurers Hiscox disclosed that a large claim was filed when a forklift truck driver at Heathrow drove his forks through a very well-known painting that was very lovely.”
2 The National Gallery’s Domenico Beccafumi ‘Marcia’ suffered serious damage when removed from a wall. The Gallery’s long-serving restorer and present Director of Conservation, Martin Wyld, decided in consultation with Board Chairman Peter Scott Q.C., to repair the picture without showing it to the Board. An internal report on the accident and its causes was considered by the Board’s Audit Committee in March and the Audit Committee reported to the full Board in April. The damage has been reported to the DCMS and to the MLA. To date, there has been no press coverage of the accident.
3 Arts commentators were taken aback when Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery’s new director, publicly challenged the mania for blockbuster exhibitions by declaring that: “The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they haven’t seen before. A major national institution should be one that proves a constant attraction to the public. What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the public.” His admission that he had “a lot of thinking to do about our exhibitions and the directions they are taking” was echoed by Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward Gallery’s director, in the Independent on March 8th: “exhibitions cost more and more to put on and there are more risks involved. Its easy to say let’s play it safe. Let’s go on what the public know and already loves.” (For Dr Penny’s longstanding blockbuster reservations, see “Blockbuster Exhibitions: the Hidden Costs and Perils”, AW Journal 22.)
Press coverage of the Beccafumi injury followed our item. On 16 May 2008 The Guardian reported: “Oops! Gallery handlers break Renaissance painting”
In June 2008 The Art Newspaper carried a report headed: National Gallery drops Renaissance painting, splitting it in two ~ Director admits the accident was “extremely serious”
On 20 June 2008 the gallery made available to us the photograph of the smashed panel shown here, and the full auditors report (“Report on the Circumstances behind the Accidental damage to NG 6369 Domenico Beccafumi’s Marcia”) by Tadeusz J. A. Glabus, Head of Internal Audit, the British Museum, that had been submitted to the gallery on 13 March 2008. (We are indebted to Nicholas Penny for those disclosures.)
The photograph (above) speaks for itself. The report is eloquent in ways that may not have been intended. Although it names no names and attributes no culpability, it shows, in essence, that the accident was product of an accelerating shambles and that this had been an accident-in-waiting. The report works backwards from the accident. It might be instructive to consider its detailed findings in reverse.
The exhibition was one of many: “In a typical year the Gallery’s exhibition programme will contain three major Sainsbury Wing shows, three Sunley Room shows, three or four Room One shows and the UK tour show (an exhibition of around 24 works to Bristol, Newcastle and the Sunley Room.”
According to the last published figures, the gallery has a curatorial complement of twenty (as opposed to one of twenty-five, for example, in Communications, Media, Press and Marketing).
The Renaissance Siena exhibition was unusually large for a Sainsbury Wing show – 116 exhibits compared with a usual figure of 50-70. 102 of its exhibits were loans. It was said that “this exceptionally high number of exhibits was attributed to the exhibition curator’s remarkable rate of success in converting the contents of the Exhibition Loan Request List into firm commitments.”
The exhibition itself was unusual in other respects. It contained 20 three-dimensional objects that “presented a set of different technical challenges to staff more accustomed to dealing with flat objects.” The number, variety and geographically dispersed locations of the exhibits “impacted significantly on the range of operations relating to the exhibition” and thereby imposed a “very heavy workload for staff”. The exhibition was unusually ambitious in its design: “one of the most technically challenging and logistically complex shows ever staged by the Gallery” but it was less clear that the allocated resources were sufficient to the task. Preparing for this show “impacted significantly on a range of internal operations and there is anecdotal evidence that the workloads of some staff, particularly in Registrar and Design, were stretched to breaking point.” Although general failures of communication and absences or confusions of lines of authority were identified under a heading of “blurring of roles and responsibilities”, the strains in Design seem to have been seen as chiefly responsible for the accident. The Gallery’s in-house designers struggled to cope with designs that were “ambitious and complex”. Design work was “out-sourced”. The in-house 3D designer works “almost exclusively on exhibitions but Design is part of Communications”. Confusions exist in the relationships between the organising curator, the Exhibition registrar and Art Handling: “there is a need to clarify who is actually in charge of the installation and de-installation”. The appointment of an external designer mid-way through the project may have been right in view of the “excessive workload” but it was not universally welcomed by the “project team” on account of the “high regard in which the in-house designer’s work was held”. The incoming designer was on a steep learning curve, unfamiliar with Gallery practices and jargon, and constituted a break in continuity that was deemed “disruptive and irksome” in a period marked by “lack of continuity, confusion and, at times, absence of direct management.” It was judged that “In practice, the designer received instructions from the registrar, Curator, 3D Designer, Head of design and Exhibitions Organiser”. He believed himself to be being managed by the Exhibition Organiser when the Exhibition Policy states that this responsibility rests with the Design department.
All of the above might have amounted to no more than the normal bruised egos colliding in a large organisation, but, fatefully, the workload was spinning out of control. Ongoing difficulties resulted in the “unprecedented decision” to allow the Head of Art Handling to take on the complex tasks of recreating a 15th C bedchamber and reuniting a 15th C wooden polyptych. The original design for the exhibition had stipulated seven showcases. This grew in the course of the exhibition to twenty-four, with unforeseen implications for design that “may have been a contributory factor in problems arising from the late delivery of some drawings”.
These drawing were vital to the execution of a key piece of installation: a special masking frame to house and exhibit three (originally related) Beccafumi panel paintings, two of which were the gallery’s own, the third a loan from the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. It had originally been intended to hang the three paintings as a triptych but behind separate masking frames that would permit them to be “displayed on a level visual plane but without the distraction of separate frames”. It was later decided (two weeks before installation) to hang all three paintings behind “a single wall-mounted masking frame”. It remains unclear “who actually made this decision”. The design of this frame was still being discussed in the second week of the installation. It is suggested that one reason this project was so low down on the list of priorities is because two of the paintings were the gallery’s own – even though the pictures are classed as fragile and “would never be allowed to go out on loan to another institution”.
It was acknowledged that each time these paintings were moved or placed and taken off a wall or fitted into the masking frame “there was a risk of damage, also a higher risk in mounting both paintings in one frame”.
The chosen masking frame arrived on the very last day of installation – the 19 October 2007, when it was noticed that “the sight-sizes for all three paintings were too small”. Many people discussed the problem but the designer was not present for the installation. A conservation technician and a restorer agreed to undertake the necessary alterations, apparently without having been given any information on the frame’s intended function as a purely “masking frame”. The alterations were made on a misapprehension: that this was a “holding frame”, the apertures of which were too small. Work was not started until the following Monday. As a temporary measure, all three Beccafumi panels were fixed to the wall on the Friday so that they could be seen at a colloquium the following day. On the Monday the two National Gallery panels were removed to the conservation department in their frames. The masking frame was altered and the two panels were fitted into it by wooden battens, each of which was fixed to the frame by a single line of hot melt adhesive applied by a hot melt gun. The, by then, glazed and framed pair of paintings left conservation 17.00, needing to be installed in the gallery by 17.30 in order to be on show for a private view later that evening. The solution appeared to everyone involved to have worked.
“De-installation” took place on 21 January 2008 in the “unusual” presence of two curators, one of whom was seeking (successfully) to persuade the Galleria Doria Pamphilj’s courier to permit their panel to undergo x-ray and infrared examinations.
To cut a long story short, the masking frame that had become a holding frame was found to be stuck to the wall. It was freed (accompanied, some staff members recall by a “cracking noise”) but as the frame was being handled, the panel Marcia fell out of the back and smashed against the skirting board, as did the defective glued wooden fixing that was supposed to hold it place. The glue on the fixing to the other Gallery panel (the Tanaquil) was also found to be defective and to have “partially failed”. It was discovered that the glue had been applied to only a single surface not the required two surfaces. It has been decided by Conservation never to use this type of adhesive for that purpose again. At the time of installation Conservation staff had been confident that a reinforcement of the bond with screws was unnecessary.
The Auditor’s report suggests that “There were probably too many people around at the time of and immediately after the accident” and that, contrary to established procedures “there was anecdotal evidence of curators arriving during installation with unannounced guests”.
After the Marcia panel was restored, it and its companion Tanaquil did not return to their place in the main galleries but were relegated to the ill-lit basement of the reserve collection which is open to the public for only a few hours a week. [M. D.]
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