Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Guarding the Loot

The first time I visited the Louvre, I, of course, made a point of trying to see the Mona Lisa. Catching up with my friends later, I was asked, "Well, what's it like?"

"Like the backs of a lot of other people's heads," I reported.

As Edward Dolnick notes in an op-ed in The New York Times today, "The greatest appeal of seeing a masterpiece in a museum is the immediacy of the encounter with the real thing." He uses the case of how, after an embarassing run of thefts, the Munch Museum in Norway has very visably fortified itself, to lament the way our increasingly more dangerous world is changing the museum experience:

The Munch Museum had been at one extreme of the vulnerability spectrum. "The Scream," for example, hung from an easily cut wire, like an ordinary painting in an ordinary home. The museum's upgrades have moved it to the opposite extreme. With X-ray machines, bulletproof glass, airport-style metal detectors, and paintings bolted to the wall, the revamped museum has been dubbed Fortress Munch.

This is a new approach to museum security. Although poor Mona Lisa has been trapped in her bulletproof glass box for more than 20 years, the overall aim at her home, the Louvre, and most museums has been to keep security measures unobtrusive.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, the security is good but largely out of sight, and the visitor can admire the art without feeling that he is gazing at a bird in a cage. But officials are increasingly worried that both museum visitors and artwork might be the target of terrorist attacks. Just last month, the New York City Council awarded $2 million to cultural institutions to increase security.

We don't yet know what sort of precautions the New York museums will take. But the Munch Museum, the victim first of robbers and then of worldwide mockery, decided it had no choice but to flaunt its new armor before the world.
The Munch Museum is a special case. Its visible response to the thefts probably saves them hours of reassuring members and visitors that their remaining works are not at risk. Hopefully, as time goes on, though, they can relax the more visible efforts. But using the ludicrously installed Mona Lisa as an example of where this can lead, it seems to me museums can't afford to become fortresses. They become pointless if they destroy the opportunity to experience an intimacy with their holdings. Seriously, why even bother exhibiting a piece at all. It's not about being in the vicinity of a masterpiece. I'd learn more from a high-definition projection from a good slide.

The Met and MoMA seem to have the right approach (although I'd love to see Starry Night without the glass sometime). If I were asked, I'd suggest the following guidelines:
  • So long as visitors take care to establish a posture that reassures the guards they won't touch anything (i.e., hands by one's side or [my favorite] joined behind the back), museums should generally let you get as close to a piece as you like.
  • All search efforts (checking bags or metal detectors) should be kept far from the galleries, so that there's a distance to travel in which one's mind can shift gears and prepare for the exhibition.
  • All surveillance devices or emergency gates etc. should be invisible as much as possible.
  • Regardless of how theives may arm themselves, only guards near the entrances should ever, EVER, have guns (imagine a shoot out in a gallery and this becomes clear).
  • All art thieves should be forced to look like Pierce Brosnan.
  • Scratch that last one, make it Steve McQueen.


Anonymous crionna said...

That shot of the Mona Lisa is why I skipped the Louvre when I was there in 2002. My favorite museums on that trip were The Van Gogh in Amsterdam and the Musee D'Orsay.

The Jewish museum in Berlin was very powerful and there the xray machines kinda helped the effect, as did the visible alarm wires on even the smallest of windows.

8/02/2005 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Musee D'Orsay is excellent...missed it the last time I was in Paris (but did see the Palais de Tokyo...more of a contemporary art business trip).

Haven't seen the Jewish Museum...what "effect" are they going for?

8/02/2005 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Haven't seen the Jewish Museum...what "effect" are they going for?

Well, maybe it was unintentional, but it was a bit claustrophobic or jail-like, which was odd because I remember noting that there was very little Holocaust exhbition.

8/02/2005 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Human breath is a conservation problem for some artworks, and not just the ones we assume are delicate, like work on paper. But your distance/posture model assumes the best in people, while any security outfit worth its badge is forced to assume the worst. At some point someone's going to want to lick a painting; the guard might catch on after it's too late. And with the hostility that some artworks arouse, someone's going to huck a gorgeous green loogee at an image they don't like.

Bill Gusky

8/03/2005 08:35:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

So sorry I missed to see Mona :(
Hopefully on my next trip to Paris.

8/04/2005 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

sure thing, bambino

next time we're in Paris, I'll take you to the room so you can see the backs of all those people's heads... ;-0

8/04/2005 04:16:00 PM  

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