Museums: When—and Why—Artworks Break

Sometime in the late 15th century, the Italian sculptor Andrea della Robbia created a terra-cotta relief sculpture of Saint Michael the Archangel. Since 1996, this sublimely beautiful, 62-inch-wide framed piece has been resting in metal mounts above the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's galleries for European and decorative art. But last week, in the middle of the night, Saint Michael the Archangel fell from the sky--breaking into pieces on the marble floor below.

The cracked archangel may not be a sign of apocalypse, but it's definitely a cause for alarm at the Met, which is scrambling to confirm the "structural integrity" of the pedestals and wall mounts that keep some of the world's finest artifacts intact. "The charge of a museum is to protects these materials," says Eryl Wentworth, the executive director for the American Institute of Conservation. "The last thing you want to have to do is deal with breaking an artifact."

In fact, museums have to deal with broken art fairly frequently. In 2005, the Institute of Museum and Library Services surveyed more than 3,000 collecting institutions, both large and small, and released their first-ever Heritage Health Index Report. This study found that more than half of all institutions have experienced some damage to their collection due to handling, and 58 percent of those surveyed also said damage has occurred as a result of improper storage or enclosure.

When something like a della Robbia falls from its mounts, museum conservators are responsible for figuring out why the accident occurred and, quite literally, putting the pieces back together. (The Met says the piece was not "irrevocably harmed" and expects it to return to display.) The American Institute of Conservation comprises more than 3,500 professionals who work in museums or as freelancers; nearly all have a master's degree from one of the seven institutions that offer degrees in the field. Needed? A knowledge of science, hand skills and a bachelor's degree in disciplines as varied as art history or chemistry. "There's only one formula I go by," says Jerry Podany, the senior conservator for antiquities at the Getty Museum, as well as the director of the International Institute of Conservation. "Acceptable risk equals acceptable damage. If you want the latter part of that formula to go away, you have to reduce risk by providing resources like staff, budgets, security and disaster prevention."

When the Heritage report was released, it found that 80 percent of collecting institutions did not have a paid staff dedicated to collections care, and that 71 percent needed additional training and expertise for the staff that deals with their collections. "Accidents probably happen more often than we know, and staff who aren't appropriately trained or a lack of staff can cause those accidents to be more likely," Podany says. And while major museums like the Met and Getty have scores of employees--curators, preparators, conservators and registrars (who keep records)--history shows they're not immune, especially given the size and scope of their collections.

Two summers ago, the Centre Pompidou museum in Paris had to pay nearly $90,000 to separate institutions when it broke two works that were on loan. One was a resin sculpture by Peter Alexander that fell when staff members didn't give glue time to dry; the other, a Plexiglas relief by Craig Kauffman that fell from the wall for still-unknown reasons. Two months ago at the same museum, a 30-pound Plexiglas sculpture by Corey McKorkle splintered into three pieces when it fell from a mount meant to hold 350 pounds. Specialists had approved the device, so the Pompidou is still investigating why it fell.

Even more recently, in late May, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh had its own staffing issue when a guard they contracted slashed a $1.2 million Vija Celmins painting with his keys. According to police affidavits, he just "didn't like it." And at the Met, the recent flub isn't an isolated incident. In 2002, a pedestal broke and a 15th-century six-foot-sculpture of Adam toppled over. "Maybe the curator wants this 500-pound object on this thin little pedestal [for visual reasons], but that's when the preparators and the engineers step in," Podany says. "I think an awful lot can be prevented with proper planning."

While aging may make some antique works more fragile, modern art is proving vulnerable in its own way. It's often made with unfamiliar or ephemeral materials and created in a way that makes art difficult to transport. Conservators have hundreds of years of experience protecting oil paint on stretched canvas, for example, but are still figuring out how to keep acrylic on wood from degrading. Meanwhile, the visitors who patronize contemporary art museums sometimes don't know the rules when they step outside the traditional displays. "We talk about the peculiarities of modern art--which is very confusing to the public as to what they're allowed to touch," says Tom Learner, the head of contemporary art research at the Getty Conservation Institute. If you can grab of piece of candy from a Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation, why can't you smudge a fingerprint onto a Jeff Koons balloon sculpture? "I imagine places like the MoMA and Guggenheim reporting higher incidents of that kind of damage than the Met," he says. (The Museum of Modern Art declined to comment. But the Guggenheim is tackling the issue head-on: a current exhibit called "Imageless" explores the different ways a severely damaged Ad Reinhardt black painting could be repaired. The piece was donated to the museum by AXA Art Insurance in hopes the project would highlight the difficulty in restoring modern art, especially in making decisions about experimental techniques.)

The dangers may be worsened by the push for new, younger members (especially at contemporary museums), which often raise money and draw crowds at after-dark events that combine drinking, dancing and gallery hopping. At New York's Frick Collection and the Guggenheim, as well as Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, these "First Friday" events are popular among a twentysomething crowd in search of swanky fun. But too much alcohol can quickly turn from class to crash. When the Milwaukee Art Museum opened up its new Santiago Calatrava addition for a local radio station's "Martinifest"--which included unlimited cocktails for $30--guests were reported to have spilled food and drink (even vomit) around some of the museum's artwork. Two sculptures were removed for conservator review, including Gaston Lachaise's "Standing Woman," a tall bronze sculpture that four men reportedly climbed onto. At the time, rental income made up 6 percent of the annual budget. But after Martinifest, the museum had to revise its booking procedures.

Some risk always has to be accepted. "It's like looking at news coverage of plane crashes," says Podany. "The accidents, as tragic as they are, are statistically minimal. And there's enormous effort in preventing them from happening from the beginning. I think museums are like that." The only way to prevent any risk of damage would be to keep all art packed in storage and never displayed. That might protect the art, but at a devastating cost to the world's culture.