December 6, 2023
‘Paintings at risk from protesters’ due to cut in security at National Gallery

Just Stop Oil used hammers to break the protective cover covering Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery on 6 November – Just Stop Oil

The curator has privately warned that cuts to security at the National Gallery are putting paintings at risk from protesters.

Staff were shocked to see protesters using hammers to smash glass on Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus earlier this month, while paintings by Constable and Van Gogh were targeted last year.

Curators fear that the lack of security guards has made the collection more vulnerable to damage or theft.

The curator said that earlier, every room was patrolled, but now guards are assigned to protect three or four rooms.

One warned that the room containing Mantegna’s monumental paintings, The Triumphs of Caesar, currently on loan to King Charles, “was empty for the greater part of the day”.

“The guards are having to make three rooms,” he said. “You can’t be in three places at once and there are large parts of the day where there is no security at all.

“If King Charles’s debts were damaged, any hope of further loans would be ruined. “Yet, the internal report we are getting on security is that everything went well.”

Two protesters throw canned soup at Vincent van Gogh's famous 1888 work Sunflowers at the National Gallery in October 2022

Two protesters throw canned soup at Vincent van Gogh’s famous 1888 work Sunflowers at the National Gallery in October 2022 – Just Stop Oil/PA

Referring to the Just Stop Oil protests, he said: “If you’re taking hammers to the National Gallery, you have a serious problem with security.

“All museums and galleries, even in Europe, have the problem of Just Stop Oil, but it is now becoming a kind of epidemic.

“Morale in that place is pretty low because there’s no sign that anything is going to change.”

Curators say the Rokeby Venus targeted last month has been damaged by broken glass that could have scratched the surface or embedded itself in the canvas.

A National Gallery spokesman said there was “minimal damage” to the painting’s surface.

But, while he confirmed it was “not back on display yet”, a curator said: “Normally galleries like to put things straight back in, to show people there’s nothing to worry about. “

Last year, Just Stop Oil protesters pasted an “apocalyptic” version of Constable’s The Hay Wain on the painting and glued their hands to the frame.

In another incident, he spilled tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers before it was stuck to the wall. He was able to give a speech before he was captured.

Protesters from the Just Stop Oil climate protest group stick their hands on the frame of John Constable's The Hay Vane after covering the painting with his photograph for the first time in July 2022.

Protesters from the Just Stop Oil climate protest group stick their hands on the frame of John Constable’s The Hay Vane after covering the painting with his photograph for the first time in July 2022 – Kirsty O’Connor/PA

The National Gallery later said that experts found minor damage to the frame and varnish covering the constable. The gallery said that, since the Van Gogh painting was covered with a sheet of glass, there was no damage to it. There is some minor damage to the frame.

Michael Daly, director of Artwatch UK, which monitors museums and galleries, said of the Rokeby Venus attack: “They ranged from applying themselves or pasting messages to protect the glass, to breaking reinforced glass with the safety hammers found on trains. Have moved forward. “Violence has now become real rather than symbolic.”

He added: “Museums are understandably reluctant to discuss security procedures, but it is now clear that the old-style warding staff – who were often ex-military or police people – have been replaced by fewer and friendlier greetings. The possibility of this has increased with the advent of genre workers who attack famous works of art.

“Where attacks once came primarily from distraught individuals, today they are a softer-touch option for political activists who appreciate that staff are instructed not to intervene but only to report incidents goes.

“This soft and condescending – if not complicit – policy leaves activists free to launch increasingly destructive attacks and then spread and spread agitation-propaganda.”

‘Need for properly staffed security teams’

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, which represents many members of National Gallery staff, said: “The safeguarding of our national collections is one of the most important functions of our museums and galleries.

“Although PCS has long campaigned for fully staffed, in-house security teams, management at these national institutions have scaled back investment in security and outsourced many key staff – all employees To reduce the number of and cut costs.

“The most recent incident at the National Gallery is a further demonstration of why properly staffed security teams are needed to protect the important collections in some of our greatest cultural institutions.”

A National Gallery spokesperson said: “Safety is the highest priority and any changes to its arrangements are approved by the museums’ national security adviser.”

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