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Vandalism and Art

Protecting Paintings from Vandalism: updating rapid response procedures at the National Gallery, London

Morwenna Blewett, Lynne Harrison and David Peggie

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Vandalism at National Gallery

1Like many public museums, the National Gallery, London, has sustained acts of vandalism to its collection. Archival records dating back to 1863 reveal that patterns of damage mostly involve mechanical damage with fewer non-corrosive substance attacks. In 2011, a further two paintings were defaced with canned spray paint. In total 21 works of art have been damaged.

Emergency procedures

2In response to this most recent assault and awareness of the need to update emergency procedures, the NG conservation department reviewed its emergency response kit and protocol for vandalism against its collection. The existing kit was developed in the late 1980s following a spate of acid attacks on paintings across Europe between 1977 and 1988; its function and purpose reflecting this particular threat, figure 1.

Fig. 1 Night Watch, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Fig. 1 Night Watch, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Attacked with sulphuric acid in 1989

Photo: Rijksmuseum, 1995

3Damage caused by corrosive substances increases from the point of execution and therefore demands immediate action.

Fig. 2 Corrosives substances

Fig. 2 Corrosives substances

Nitric acid caused the chalk ground on the sample to fizz and bubble.

Photo: Harrison, 1995

4This kit had no provision for dealing with mechanical damage, and in contrast, the effects of such an attack are generally more static and resulting damage can be dealt with in a less urgent way. To date, there has never been an instance of corrosive attack at the NG; however, preparedness remains a priority to mitigate the potentially devastating consequences.

5 In 2011, an updated diagnostic and clean-up approach was developed through research, testing and reference to a previous study conducted at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. A new, rapid response ‘grab bag’ and procedure was assembled, with updated equipment and materials for responding to mechanical, non-corrosive, and corrosive attacks.

Fig. 3 National Gallery response

Fig. 3 National Gallery response

Incident response bag.

Photo: The National Gallery, London, 2012.

6An action plan was designed to fit the needs and challenges that were specific to the National Gallery. The implementation of the grab bag, its maintenance and staff training, highlighted the need for ongoing responsibilities within the conservation department. These included a budget to support yearly audits and replacement equipment/materials, security processes to prevent damage to the grab bags and incidental pilfering, and the maintenance of up-to-date callout lists, protocols and staff training, all of which are necessary to keep the grab bag and procedure in good working order.

Fig. 4 Flowchart for use in the event of corrosive attack

Fig. 4 Flowchart for use in the event of corrosive attack

Instruction sheets for use in the event of corrosive (acidic) attack at the National Gallery

Credits: The National Gallery, London.

7 Unfortunately, incidents of vandalism continue and the grab bag has since been used in three real-life incidents to date, all with successful outcomes. Developing a rapid response procedure is relatively quick, easy and inexpensive to achieve. The nature of an attack may not be predictable but the successful mitigation of damage inflicted is well within the means of most institutions and custodians of heritage collection.

8 This research has been previously published, for a more detail see the references included.

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Bibliography

Blewett, M., Harrison, L. & Peggie, D. 2017 (forthcoming). Preparing for the worst: Re-developing and tailoring a rapid response ‘grab-bag’ and procedure to the specific needs and limitations of the National Gallery, London. American Institute of Conservation Paintings Group contribution to EMERGENCY! Preparing for disasters and confronting the unexpected in conservation, Joint 44th annual meeting and 42nd annual conference May 13-17, 2016 Montreal, Canada.

Blewett, M., Harrison, L. & Peggie, D. 2015. Incident preparedness at the National Gallery: developing a grab bag and rapid response to a corrosive attack. Studies in Conservation 60(6): 393-417.

Harrison, L. 1995. Chemical attack: A practical survey. A guide to protocols and the development of a disaster kit (unpublished postgraduate diploma diss) London, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Source materials:

Comprehensive information, including a list of materials and suppliers can found online and other information about the National Gallery Incident Grab Bag can be found at

http://research.ng-london.org.uk/wiki/index.php/Incident_response_grab_bag

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 Night Watch, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Caption Attacked with sulphuric acid in 1989
Credits Photo: Rijksmuseum, 1995
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5629/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 64k
Title Fig. 2 Corrosives substances
Caption Nitric acid caused the chalk ground on the sample to fizz and bubble.
Credits Photo: Harrison, 1995
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5629/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 64k
Title Fig. 3 National Gallery response
Caption Incident response bag.
Credits Photo: The National Gallery, London, 2012.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5629/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 2.3M
Title Fig. 4 Flowchart for use in the event of corrosive attack
Caption Instruction sheets for use in the event of corrosive (acidic) attack at the National Gallery
Credits Credits: The National Gallery, London.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5629/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 168k
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References

Electronic reference

Morwenna Blewett, Lynne Harrison and David Peggie, « Protecting Paintings from Vandalism: updating rapid response procedures at the National Gallery, London  », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 08 December 2018, connection on 19 June 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5629

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About the authors

Morwenna Blewett

Painting Conservator, Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge. Email: mb2169@cam.ac.uk

Lynne Harrison

Paintings Conservator, National Gallery, LondonEmail: lynne.harrison@ng-london.org.uk

David Peggie

Organic Analyst, National Gallery, LondonEmail: david.peggie@ng-london.org.uk

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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