Their plan was simple: Eco-protesters would spread out across the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, some placing warnings about mass extinction over the museum’s picture frames, while others used the courtyard for a “die-in,” or distributed leaflets throughout the museum.
The “guerrilla art installation,” intended to take place last Saturday, had unmistakable similarities to the spate of surprise climate protests, where activists have targeted European museums, gluing themselves to picture frames or tossing food at artworks.
But unlike those earlier demonstrations, the Gardner action failed to materialize after organizers announced their intentions to media a full day in advance. Catching wind of the plan, the Gardner closed for the day, keeping its art secure and prompting thwarted Boston-area activists from the group Extinction Rebellion to protest outside the museum, calling attention to a decline in biodiversity related to climate change.
Protesters timed their original action to coincide with the 33rd anniversary of the Gardner heist, the unsolved theft of 13 treasured artworks. Demonstrators would have placed “original art pieces over the ornate frames kept empty since the infamous unsolved art heist,” according to a press release. The work, which would depict an hourglass filling with bones, would carry the message, “STOP MASS EXTINCTION: THE BIGGEST HEIST.”
Gardner director Peggy Fogelman said the museum struggled over whether to close Saturday, adding that leadership discussed “multiple scenarios” to remain open despite potential damage to artwork or injuries to patrons.
“We just could not come up with a scenario where either the art or the public would not be at risk,” said Fogelman. “We really didn’t have any good option other than to close.”
The Gardner may have sidestepped a crisis over the weekend, but the incident underlines a difficult truth faced by many museums: The balancing act between keeping a collection accessible and keeping it safe makes it nearly impossible for museums to prevent determined people from staging guerrilla-style stunts in their galleries.
Last fall, a climate protester tried to glue his head to Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” while it was on display in The Hague. A few days earlier, a pair of activists hurled mashed potatoes at an artwork by Monet in Germany. Earlier protests involving similar tactics targeted works by John Constable, van Gogh, Picasso, and others. Most of the protests so far have been focused in Europe, carried out by a variety of environmental groups, including Extinction Rebellion.
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do to completely avoid those kinds of happenings from a security standpoint,” said Kurt Steinberg, chief operating officer at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. “If they have the conviction to do something, you can minimize the effect of the act, but I think it’s generally very hard for anybody to completely [prevent it]. You would have to be closed all the time.”
Security is a touchy subject for museums, many of which will only discuss strategies in the broadest of terms. Some won’t even comment; a spokesperson for the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, declined an interview request on behalf of the museum, writing “details around MFA security preparation and systems are confidential.”
Still, many museums have instituted policies and training to help mitigate or even prevent these sorts of incidents. Fogelman said the Gardner implemented a bag search policy when it reopened Sunday, instructing staff to be on the lookout for cans of soup, glue, or other objects that might be used in a protest.
“It’s not about profiling people,” said Fogelman. “It’s about what to look for in terms of items that could be used within a guerrilla art installation or protest.”
Steinberg said the Peabody Essex Museum, which already had a bag check policy in place, has also provided training for guards and other staff on “situational awareness” and how to “deescalate” potential crises — everything from a lost child to a spontaneous protest.
“It’s just being aware, not just of someone who might pose a concern, but also if someone is in crisis or may need assistance from us,” said Steinberg. It’s about “being able to observe without being intrusive, which is always a delicate balance, and making sure that our people understand how to interact with a diverse group of visitors.”
Technology also plays a role. Many museums deploy camera surveillance systems as well as sensors that alert guards and patrons if someone gets too close to an artwork.
And while most institutions stop short of deploying metal detectors, Steve Keller, a cultural property security consultant in Florida, said he was recently approached by a company that’s developing a facial recognition system for museums. He added that museums can use technology and staff training to help identify suspicious visitor behavior.
“They’re not going to just come in there for the first time and attack a painting, they’re going to come in the day before, perhaps, they’re going to check out conditions,” said Keller, who added that such sleuthing is a “delicate balance.”
“So where do you draw the line?” he continued. “They can’t overreact, or they’ll be violating people’s rights.”
Locked out of the Gardner Saturday, protesters instead rallied outside, holding flags, carrying signs, and blocking traffic on Evans Way as they sought to raise awareness about the devastating effects of climate change.
“On the heist’s 33rd anniversary, Extinction Rebellion Boston has chosen to stage their nonviolent protest at the museum to highlight the difference between the passionate reaction to the heist as compared to the apathetic response to the ongoing destruction of all life on Earth,” said the press release.
They insisted they were not threatening the museum’s collection.
“We love art,” Susan Lemont, who handles media for the group, told the Globe. “But there is no art on a dead planet.”
The protest came just days before the United Nations released a grim climate report, warning of disastrous warming in the next decade unless nations take dramatic measures.
Fogelman said the Gardner, like many museums, has sought to reduce its energy consumption in recent years. She added that the Renzo Piano-designed addition is an LEED Gold-certified building, noting that protesters stood atop geothermal wells Saturday that help with heating and cooling the building.
She said the decision to close was made more difficult because it fell on the anniversary of the heist, which left an indelible mark on the institution.
“I assume the motivation was to capitalize on the publicity that already surrounds” the anniversary, said Fogelman. “It’s a very sad day.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.