10 Ways Art Museums Protect Their Masterpieces

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Each year, in America alone, millions of people visit art museums—bringing with them millions of opportunities to damage the masterpieces they’re there to see.  Whether intentional or not, caused by humans, forces of nature, or simply the passage of time, there’s always the chance that the world’s greatest masterpieces can be lost or damaged when put on view for all the world to see. Here is just a taste of the many ways art museums around the globe protect their priceless treasures.

1. FLOOD WALLS

When plans were announced for the multimillion dollar relocation and construction of New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, courtesy of renowned architect Renzo Piano, mastery in design was to be expected. But then Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, and while in the midst of construction, Piano was compelled to innovate even further. When the construction site was flooded with more than 5 million gallons of water, the building plans changed, adding a state-of-the-art flood wall to fend off future disasters and protect its works from potential water damage from flooding of the nearby Hudson River. Now, the museum boasts a fortification comprised of a 500-foot-long mobile wall and a 14-foot-tall by 27-foot-long flood door meant to withstand up to nearly 7000 pounds of impact, keeping the museum water-tight up to 16.5 feet (seven feet higher than before Sandy). With climate change making intense storms more common on the East Coast, these precautions make sure the Whitney’s masterpieces—which include more than 18,000 works in their permanent collection alone—stay high and dry against the forces of Mother Nature.

2. PROJECTIONS

In 1962, five murals by American master Mark Rothko were given to Harvard University as a gift from the artist himself. (Rothko refused to accept any payment, saying, “This is the first time I have been able to deliver commissioned work that I am satisfied with.”) The murals were to be hung in a dining hall, which underwent extensive preparation in order to fit Rothko’s specifications. New lighting was installed, the oak-paneled walls were covered in green material, and, in a retrospectively regrettable move, Rothko insisted that the public be allowed as much access to the art as possible. Somewhat predictably for a college dining hall, it didn't take long for the paintings to fall into disrepair: The curtains in the sunny hall were rarely closed, so the paintings’ colors faded rapidly. They were scratched and dented by years of rearranging furniture. College students spilled food and drinks on the paintings, sometimes even tagging them with small bits of graffiti, leading university officials to put the murals into storage in 1979. The damage would have been bad enough, but attempts to restore the paintings brought their own hurdles. Conventional restoration methods were a no-go due to Rothko’s trademark use of natural materials like eggs and animal glue mixed with pigment. Whereas conventional restoration would add layers of removable paint and varnish—removable so that they can be stripped and replaced with newer, better methods as they come along—any attempts to add paint to the Rothkos would be irreversible, as another one of the artist’s trademarks was to never use varnish. And so, restoration efforts followed the lead of Raymond Lafontaine, whose study "Seeing Through a Yellow Varnish: A Compensating Illumination System" described the use of slide projectors to illuminate paint in such a way as to offset discoloration in old paintings. Using both an undamaged Rothko and some restored 1960s photographs, MIT Media Lab associate professor Ramesh Raskar created an algorithm that allowed him to find the perfect color match to be projected digitally onto the paintings, pixel by pixel, while simultaneously restoring the murals to their former glory yet leaving them untouched.

3. SPECIAL GLASS


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Glass plays a huge role in protecting pieces of art: Not only does it ward off finger smudges from prying hands, but it also can protect pieces from harmful UV rays, which can cause fading in paintings as well as on furniture, sculptures, or manuscripts. While you may think protective glass lives only directly in front of a piece of art, a museum’s first line of defense against UV rays is often in its windows, which are treated with a special UV-blocking coating—though many museums opt to avoid having windows near their art at all. “The only windows we have near exhibition areas are in the clerestory overlooking the lobby, and those windows are UV-filtered,” Amie Geremia of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville told Glass Magazine, adding, “You can see damage after a single day in the sun.”

4. VIBRATION SENSORS

Vibration sensors can detect even the lightest pressure from curious fingers. Once triggered, the sensor sends a message to a control room, alerting security where the damage is taking place, along with a picture of the art in danger. Such sensors are often placed in several areas around a piece and can be customized so that the alarm sounds after a single touch, or after several vibrations in a row. “This is particularly useful in a museum when a large number of people are around because frequent vibrations are coming from the floor or small children," Andy Moon, technical director of Advanced Perimeter Systems told a&s Magazine. "You do not want to set off an alarm when that happens." Vibration sensors, also known as seismic sensors, are usually attached to a painting’s frame—unless the frame is worth more than the painting itself, as is the case more often than you’d think. In these cases, “What the museum does is to make a false wall by putting some wood in front of the normal wall," Moon explained. "The painting is hung on the wall. Then, around the edge, we put a sensor cable. If someone touches the painting, it signals an alarm.”

5. INTERACTIVE EXHIBITS

For gallery guests who are just itching for physical contact with art, some museums provide a separate outlet. For example, the Bowes Museum in England's Barnard Castle offers an interactive exhibit where guests are actually encouraged to touch various materials and pieces. This allows guests the hands-on experience they crave, and provides a lesson in art’s fragility—provided, of course, that they remember that lesson after stepping into the more prohibitive exhibits. Sometimes interactive exhibits have the opposite of the intended effect: When the National Museum of Wales opened its Centre Court in 1993, it eschewed barriers entirely, intending to allow as much physical access to the art as possible. Alas, within just a few days, one of the largest pieces in the collection—Michael Andrews's The Cathedral, The Southern Faces/Uluru (Ayers Rock)—was so spotted with children’s fingerprints that it had to be completely sealed off from the public.

6. LED LIGHTS


By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

When Vincent van Gogh painted his famous Sunflowers series in 1888/1889, viewers were awed by the bright yellow flowers produced by the artist's use of the pigment lead chromate, also known as chrome yellow. However, it was soon widely discovered that chrome yellow darkens significantly under light exposure—to such an extent that artists soon stopped painting with that particular pigment altogether. Fast forward a century or so, and art museums are still working to restore van Gogh's Sunflowers paintings to their original vibrancy. In general, the way a painting is lit can have a huge impact on the preservation of its colors. For example, UV lights are pretty much bad all-around for paintings. For years, museums have combated UV damage by putting filters over their regular incandescent bulbs so that the UV rays can’t reach paintings. In recent years, though, the push toward more energy-efficient LED lights has had a bonus benefit for the art it illuminates: LED lights give off hardly any UV rays at all, so the art is more protected from light damage. The only problem is that LED lights don’t light a painting as prettily as their incandescent predecessors, so the LEDs have to be specially engineered to give off the same type of light, just without the harmful UV rays. Basically, every single-color LED light comes with a layer of phosphors, or a collection of metals that absorb that color of light. So, by tinkering with the phosphors on LED lights, museum conservators are able to adjust the light’s tint to more closely resemble that of the old incandescent bulbs. While LEDs greatly reduce the damage done to paintings, enough of any lighting can be harmful to older art, which is why more and more museums are pushing toward dimmer galleries—allowing you to take in the art in front of you, but not so much the museum-goer next to you.

7. INVENTORY NUMBERS

Many museums keep an intricate catalog of inventory numbers that logs and identifies each piece in a collection, from its name, history, and location, all the way down to the thread count of its canvas. Not only does this aid in the organization of pieces, but it also helps track down art in the event of a burglary, according to Steven R. Keller, security consultant and former executive director of protection services at The Art Institute of Chicago. "In the event of a theft, you'll sometimes get 20 different calls from people claiming to have the piece and willing to return it for a price, “ Keller told security news site CSO. "In one case, we leaked the wrong numbers on purpose to sort out the phony extortionists from the real one. Finally, someone called and said, 'You've got the wrong serial number.' We knew we had our guy." 

8. DISPLAYING THE DAMAGE

Once damage has been done to a piece of art, it can sometimes be difficult to raise the funds necessary for restoration. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria, found an unconventional solution to this problem when it created a collection exclusively for the display of damaged art. The collection, called "Hidden Treasures," debuted in early 2016 and provided a home for nearly 200 pieces of art that would have otherwise remained locked up in storage. “When I took on my role [in October 2015], one of the first things I did was to visit the museum’s storage,” museum director Hans-Peter Wipplinger told the AFP. "I discovered a number of works worthy of being exhibited, but that were too damaged.” The exhibition allowed visitors access to works like Robert Russ’s 1885 “Mill with Evening Sky,” a little worse for the wear with some tears in its canvas, though still of significant artistic and historical value. "Other museums often ask to borrow them, but they first have to be restored to survive the journey,” Wipplinger explained. The cost to restore such pieces is often thousands of dollars, so the Leopold displayed its damaged art with the hope that some especially generous art lovers would want to help pay the cost to repair them, and would receive an identifying plaque next to the piece of art they helped to restore as a thank you for their generosity. But "Hidden Treasures" was more than a fundraising effort. "It’s also about showing the public all the work and technical know-how required to present a piece in mint condition," added Wipplinger.

9. MOTION DETECTION


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“Thieves usually don’t slither past detectors during museum heists,” explains Museum Security: The Art of Alarms, dispelling the popular action movie myth. “They pay their six bucks, walk in as members of the public, stay behind after closing by hiding behind the draperies or under a bench, and smash the window to get out.” Many art heists might be fairly low-tech, but that doesn’t mean the protection against them has to be. Ever absentmindedly gotten a little too close to a painting and heard a loud chirping noise go off? That was a motion detector beamed directly over a painting. Such detection systems are also beamed over entrances and exits—even sneaky ones like windows and air ducts—to alert security personnel to after-hours intruders. But what about those aforementioned stragglers, who intentionally lag behind a group in the hopes of avoiding detection from sensors? That’s where saturation motion detection comes in. Rather than only watching spots in a room associated with ingress and egress, saturation motion detectors do exactly that: saturate a room with motion detection. This helps detect any thief or vandal trying to sidestep “dead zones,” or areas not covered by traditional detection systems, allowing security to keep tabs on anyone who steps into an art exhibit at any given time.

10. KID BANS

In January 2014, a photo surfaced of children climbing on Donald Judd's “stacks” sculptures at London’s Tate Modern as their parents looked on. Not to be outdone, in August 2015, a young boy tripped and tore a hole through a 17th-century Paolo Porpora painting called “Flowers” on display at an art exhibition in Taiwan, estimated to be worth about $1.5 million. In the case of the former incident, the stealthily-captured photo was tweeted by another patron alongside the caption: “Holy crap. Horrible kids, horrible parents.” “I was shocked," another passerby reported to the London Evening Standard. "I said to the parents I didn’t think their kids should be playing on a $10 million artwork. The woman turned around and told me I didn’t know anything about kids and said she was sorry if I ever had any." Such incidents shed light onto what many museum patrons think of the presence of children at museums that may be well above their sophistication level. In a 2014 point-counterpoint with The Telegraph, critic Ivan Hewitt blamed a misinterpreted Victorian ideal as the culprit for rampant children in gallery spaces: “Many people seriously hold the view that making children conform to the adult quiet of museums is a form of child abuse, which should be subverted at every turn ... The irony is that at the root of this solicitousness lies a very Victorian idea, which is that children must be initiated into the glories of high culture, and not kept away. The problem is that this good idea has become confused with a very bad one. This is the notion that high culture must be brought down to the kids’ level.” Dea Birkett, creative director of Kids in Museums, a London-based organization dedicated to making museums family-friendly places, countered that the condemnation of children in museums would be a condemnation of art in general—at least, the reaction that it’s meant to incite in humans, big and small. "It’s not really children that any of these finger-waggers want to ban. It's joy," Birkett said. "For it isn’t contempt (as Hewett claims) that early exposure to great art breeds, but passion. We should be thrilled when even young children respond so enthusiastically to a Rubens or a Richard Long. Isn’t this exactly what we want?”

5 Actors Who Could Play the Next Batman

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by Natalie Zamora

Ben Affleck's casting as the Caped Crusader wasn't exactly met with a lot of excitement. While many DC fans were (and still are) happy with the casting, many definitely weren't, and even took it upon themselves to think of who could replace him. Now, with Affleck's role in Matt Reeves's upcoming The Batman completely unknown, it's worth looking at who has been actually rumored to take his place.

5. JAKE GYLLENHAAL

Jake Gyllenhaal attends the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival - 'The Sisters Brothers' premiere at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 8, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

As early as November 2017, Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal has been rumored to be playing the next Batman. Reportedly, Gyllenhaal had a meeting with Matt Reeves, something reporter Rob Keyes tweeted out at the time. When asked about the possibility, the actor shot it down, saying, "Wow, that’s a very difficult question. The answer to that question is no."

4. RYAN GOSLING

Ryan Gosling attends the 'First Man' press conference during 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 11, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

Another acclaimed actor, Academy Award nominee Ryan Gosling has also been rumored to take on the role of Bruce Wayne for some time. When recently asked at the Toronto International Film Festival if he would consider, Gosling simply said, "I don't know," before joking that if his First Man and La La Land director Damien Chazelle made it, he'd be in.

3. JOSH BROLIN

Josh Brolin attends the 'Sicario Day Of The Soldado' Photo Call at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

Although Josh Brolin now plays two major Marvel characters, Cable and Thanos, he once confirmed he was in the running for Ben Affleck's role in 2016. Ultimately, Brolin backed out after he had disagreements with Zack Snyder on how the character should be played. Ever since Affleck's departure from directing The Batman, Brolin has been rumored to take the role.

2. MATTHEW GOODE

Actor Matthew Goode attends the 'The Imitation Game' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater in 2014
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

Like Brolin, Matthew Goode was also one of the actors in the running to play Batman before Ben Affleck was cast. He was also reportedly considered for the roles of both Superman and Lex Luthor. Clearly, Goode would be welcomed into the DCEU. Now would be the perfect time.

1. JON HAMM

Jon Hamm attends the Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures And New Line Cinema's 'Tag' at Regency Village Theatre on June 7, 2018 in Westwood, California
Jerritt Clark, Getty Images

Ever since Jon Hamm played the dark and brooding role of Don Draper on Mad Men, fans have been rallying for him to play Batman. Though rumors have been circulating for years, Hamm just recently revealed that he has never had a conversation about the possibility. However, he did say he would be interested, if the script was good.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

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