Protests and Paintings: How Museums Can Prepare for Demonstrations
The targeting of museums and other historic buildings by protesters is nothing new, partially because of ease of access and partially because of the profile of the venue. Cultural property security leaders have seen environmental protesters, climate activists, decolonialization groups, and even right-wing activist groups demonstrating at their venues.
During the past few months across Europe, there has been an increase in incidents where protestors have targeted museums and art galleries to get their message out to the public. These attacks have been primarily carried out by white males and females who have glued their hands to works of art while displaying slogans protesting about oil and gas.
In some cases, they have caused damage to buildings and exhibition spaces through the use of paint, and to some extent, to the frames of paintings after the protesters and their glue were removed. No hands appear to have been glued to the actual paintings themselves—yet.
The United Kingdom first saw the “Just Stop Oil” protests in June 2022 when, in a series of coordinated attacks, the protesters entered museums in Glasgow, Manchester, and London and glued their hands to painting frames. These incidents attracted widespread publicity nationally and internationally; therefore, in the eyes of the protestors, they were successful so other incidents followed in London using the same modus operandi and claimed by the same protest movement.
This should have caused museums to review their existing strategies for dealing with protesters and evaluate how exposed they believed they were. Some venues took the matter seriously, but many others believed it was only an issue for higher profile museums. If carefully considered, this may be an acceptable risk management approach, subject to the size and significance of the institution.
In early July 2022, however, concerns were raised about the possibility of copycat style attacks. Sure enough on 22 July a group of Italian protestors from the climate activist group Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) entered the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, Italy, attempting to carry out an identical attack. They were able to unfurl a banner and tried to glue their hands to the protective glazed screen immediately in front of Botticelli's Primavera.
Although the gluing was unsuccessful, it was still a successful protest because media coverage of the security guard dragging the protesters from the area went viral—no doubt attracting additional support due to the perceived heavy handedness of the establishment.
As in many cases, armchair security experts who have little experience with the intricacies surrounding cultural protection started offering advice in mainstream media outlets that was ill informed and not suitable for the sector.
So, what can be done? There must be a proportionate approach to tackling the issue that minimizes the opportunity for protests while ensuring the protection of artifacts. This is not an easy ask as the main purpose for museums, galleries, and other cultural venues is to encourage accessibility and enable people to appreciate the exhibits. Therefore, the normal physical security measures used to provide restricted access are counterproductive in this scenario.
Additionally, while this particular tactic may be new, protests at iconic buildings and institutions in response to exhibitions, funding, colonialization, or private grievances are not. Therefore, the threat should have already been identified and steps taken to accept, mitigate, and manage the risks. This assessment should have provided those within the venue an understanding of approaches to, and tolerance of, protests.
As with all risks there should be a continuous review to ensure the ratings and associated action remain relevant and proportionate, especially when there are fundamental changes, such as the protest M.O.
There is not a magic solution to this unique threat because there is not a uniformity of approaches to risk or tolerance to protests. Therefore, it is important for each venue to consider its responses according to the risks it faces and its need to protect its assets—including reputation.
The following are suggestions that organizations and venues can consider when faced with protests:
- At a senior level, define the acceptable risk tolerance level and ensure protests feature in the risk register.
- Have clearly defined procedures/responses to protests (organized, planned, spontaneous, or illegal), which may include locking down part of the venue or allowing the protest to take place without interference.
- Ensure that everybody is aware of what the procedures and actions are, and that training has been given (tabletop and live).
- Consider prosecution if loss, harm, or damage is caused.
- Consider issuing trespass notices for those involved, especially for anyone causing loss, harm, or damage. This is important as deterrent because the individual will know he or she is not welcome. Secondly, if the banned individual does go on to enter again, it will be as a trespasser and therefore the action could result in being arrested for burglary offences (in the United Kingdom) which has a far greater punishment than earlier offences.
- Consider bag searches and restrictions on bag sizes/certain objects within the exhibition spaces.
- Work collaboratively with other cultural venues to share information about any suspicious activities or protests that are taking place.
- Seek professional help (police, consultants, etc.) if needed.
- If possible, ensure the front of house, invigilators, and security staff (preferably everybody within the cultural venue) have received security training that includes:
- Threat identification;
- Attack methodology (including objects used in attacks);
- Situational awareness;
- Behavioural analysis;
- Surveillance detection;
- Protective operational practices; and
- Emergency responses.
- Threat identification;
- If you are not already signed up with the Cultural Properties Community on ASIS Connects, it is strongly recommended due to the availability of a wide range of free resources for members.
The above may not address all issues or answer all the questions that may exist. Nor will they reduce all the risks posed by protests, but they may help organizations and venues proactively consider the risks posed by protests so that a positive response will be applied based on a considered risk management approach to the issue.
Andy Davis (CPP, CSyP, FSyI, RISC) is the former chair of the ASIS Cultural Properties Community and the owner of Trident Manor Limited, a specialist security, risk, and crisis management consultancy based in the United Kingdom. Davis is recognized as a subject matter expert in cultural protection and has provided advice, guidance, and training to the cultural community globally.