Museum leaders say they are “shaken” by climate activists continual targeting of iconic artworks

Following a spate of recent attacks targeting artworks in museums across the globe by the activist group Just Stop Oil, 92 museum leaders have signed a statement addressing the issue. The co-signers said that they “have been deeply shaken” by the activists’ actions and emphasised the fragility of the artworks involved.

Just Stop Oil have focused their attention recently on museums and cultural institutions as a place to demonstrate their frustration. Recently, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery was targeted. The statement addressing this was released by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and included the signatures of representatives from a significant list of museums, such as the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and many more. The statement suggests that activists “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage” and reiterates that their actions amount to the “risky endangerment” of this cultural heritage.

While they make evident the need to preserve art works, the statement does indicate that museums are a “free space for social communication” where “people from a wide variety of backgrounds can engage in dialogue”. ICOM’s website outlines how the organisation “wishes to acknowledge and share both the concerns expressed by museums regarding the safety of collections and the concerns of climate activists as we face an environmental catastrophe that threatens life on Earth.”

Public opinion has been divided over the recent Just Stop Oil actions. Previously, the Association of Art Museum Directors released a statement saying that “attacks on works of art cannot be justified”, but with its emphasis on the role of the cultural institution as a place for social discourse, the recent statement has focused not on the effectiveness of the attacks but on the potential for serious damage to works of art.

Museums have also ramped up their security recently as a way of preventing these stunts. Last Friday security at the National Museum of Norway in Oslo managed to intervene and stop two women who were trying to glue themselves to Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). Similarly, security at the Musée d’Orsay stopped a woman who they noticed was wearing a Just Stop oil t-shirt and carrying a water bottle containing soup. Earlier this month, Berlin museums and the Barberini in Potsdam started to require all visitors to check in all coats and bags. Christina Haak, deputy director of the Berlin State Museums, said that “we know from the incidents that some of the equipment that people carried in for the attacks was in very small bags.” Beate Reifenscheid, chair of ICOM, has also speculated that it could get to a point where phones and cameras are banned entirely, as the group is known for filming the stunts to spread awareness.

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