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Vandalism and Art

The many forms of ‘vandalism’ in relation to modern art

Sandra Weerdenburg, Netta Krumperman, Rebecca Timmermans and Tessa Rietveld

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1The term ‘vandalism‘ is a broad concept, and includes many kinds of behaviour in a museum of modern art. According to the precise definition, it concerns the deliberate damaging of objects. Unfortunately, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam has had to deal with this at various times.

2However, in practice, much damage occurs during exhibitions by the public touching objects with no real intention to cause damage. Apart from the specific motives and behaviour of individual persons, various more general factors can play a role: the character of the displayed objects, the (original) function of an object, the associations people might have with it, and, of course, the manner of display.

3This paper presents an impression of experiences undergone in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, including various forms of, in most cases, undesirable physical interventions by the public with the works of art.

‘Autonomous’ art

4In the Stedelijk Museum, ‘independent’ artworks are regularly displayed; that is, works without a specific (former) use, or function. This chiefly concerns paintings and reliefs, sculptures, installations, and works on paper.

Paintings and reliefs

5Of this group, paintings are the least touched in the Stedelijk. Apparently there is a kind of respect for, or clear awareness of, the value of a painting, and possibly also its vulnerability. The fact that they hang on the wall probably also plays a role, as they are out of harm‘s way. Sometimes damage is caused by touching, but generally this is less than with three-dimensional objects.

6Reliefs, or works with a more unusual surface/material are exceptions here. Then people touch ‘to feel what it is’, even though this is stated on the exhibition label.

7On the other hand, clear-cut vandalism, with the explicit aim to damage a work, definitely occurs more often on paintings: the slashed Newmans, and the Malewich on which a dollar sign was sprayed, are sad examples. In these cases, the attacks are clearly linked to the character and/or value of the paintings.

Sculptures and installations

8Statues and installations can be extremely varied in form, and they are often meant to stand free in a space. Sometimes these works, or their components, are not readily recognisable as art (e.g., a bucket that is a separate component of a complex work). Benches or chair-like objects, whether autonomous or applied art, apparently invite the viewer to sit on them. Sometimes interventions may be meant as jokes: the adding of objects to installations or reliefs, or the changing of sunglasses on a statue by Isa Genzken.

9A separate category is works that you can enter, such as The Beanery by Edward Kienholz. Although only one person at a time is allowed in the work, the space is very tight, so that unintentional damage easily occurs. In addition, guards cannot see what precisely someone is doing in there. A recent research project showed that much mechanical damage to the object was at ‘hand height’; much was fiddled with and broken where the public could easily reach.

Fig.1 Edward Kienholz, The Beanery (1965)

Fig.1 Edward Kienholz, The Beanery (1965)

Dog at ‘hand height’, with much of its fur removed because of frequent touching by the public.

Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Photo Anna Lagana

10Graffiti is a large problem with outdoor sculptures. As it happens, the Stedelijk has few outdoor sculptures: only Sight Point by Richard Serra stands near the museum, and this is regularly painted with graffiti. For outdoor sculptures out on loan, mostly somewhere in the city, preventive measures and regular maintenance are arranged with the loaner.

11Especially with three-dimensional objects and installations, it can sometimes be difficult to set clear limits, or the character of a work can cause confusion:

12Visitor participation is permitted for some objects, and not for others: one is allowed to walk on a steel or lead Floor piece by Carl André. But not with bare feet (etching effect of acids/stains), and it is not intended to withstand stiletto heels (point loads), or a large group standing on it for long periods of time.

13Other floor objects are vulnerable in another way: people stumble over them on their way to something hanging on the wall, or they think they can rotate it, e.g., such as an ellipse by Isa Genzken. A steel ball in a work by Walter de Maria is regularly made to roll.

14Occasionally the Stedelijk exhibits art which is definitely meant to be ‘used’, art in which, for instance, you can sit, such as works by Jon Rafman. Nevertheless, it is not intended to be used in a way that causes damage. Where does the line lie for the public, and how do you prevent damage during use?

15Then there are materials that are deceptive regarding vulnerability: metal is often touched, perhaps because it is strong and suggests indestructibility. However, untreated metal is very sensitive to stains caused by hands, and scratches, etc. The same applies to certain types of stone. Other materials are touched because they look strange or unrecognisable: people want to find out ‘what it feels like’, or precisely because they have something familiar about them, such as textiles. Unfortunately, it is too little understood that this is not the intention, and of how damaging this can be for an object.

Works on paper

16This type of ‘touching‘ is less frequent with works on paper. Even so, unintentional damage by the public also occurs here. For example:

  • There is a great difference in the vulnerability of framed works with, and without glazing. Framed works without glazing (e.g., photos on Dibond) are very vulnerable to mechanical damage, certainly regarding large format works with no barriers to hold the public at a distance. Visitors can accidentally brush against the surface. But the chief danger is visitors’ saliva that unintentionally lands on an artwork. When cleaning framed works, drops of saliva are often found on glazing. It is likely that this also occurs on unprotected surfaces, though not clearly visible. Over the long term, this causes irreversible damage through etching, especially on photos.

  • Works framed with glass or Perspex are regularly touched with fingers - perhaps precisely because it is in front of the work? Perspex protecting Matisse‘s La perruche et la sirène was covered with fingerprints after recent exhibitions: people wanted to touch the cutouts. The Perspex could be cleaned, but this resulted in micro scratches. These panels are obviously not part of the artwork, but replacing Perspex at this rate is very expensive and time consuming. This kind of touching also occurs with works made with the Diasec technique (adhering photos to Plexiglas with the image side against it). Fingerprints are also found on these. In this case, the ‘glazing’ is part of the artwork, and thus not to be replaced. Visitors do not realize this.

  • Large works on paper with no frame and glazing are often hung on the wall with clips or nails. These are also vulnerable. One good example is a large pigment inkjet by an important artist, which was pulled off the wall by a child who had been parked under it in a buggy. Fortunately, the damaged print could be replaced in consultation with the artist, since it had only just been printed and added to a specific installation in the Museum.

Applied Art and Design

17In addition to several aspects mentioned earlier, for Applied Art and Design there are clear distinguishing features linked to physical interventions by the public.

18The more familiar people are with certain objects, the more they behave as if they may appropriate it. For example, because their mother had such a chair, they may also sit on it in a museum.

19Familiarity with a specific functionality is similar: a switch is meant to be switched on and off, a drawer to be pulled in and out, a door to be open and shut. Thus some visitors do that, even though they are in a museum and facing a museum object.

Fig. 2 Maarten Baas, Clay Table with Drawer, (2006-2011)

Fig. 2 Maarten Baas, Clay Table with Drawer, (2006-2011)

The drawer was frequently moved by the public during exhibition.

Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

20This functionality, the ‘every day’ character of applied art and design (no matter how extraordinary or exotic, sometimes precisely because of that), seems to make it very accessible to physical contact, compared with visual art.

21In addition, there is sometimes a practical reason: it commonly happens that people are tired, and so simply sit down on an exhibited chair.

Prevention measures


22The tried and true methods are often used, such as mounting glass or Perspex on the front of works, or placing works in showcases, or placing cords, or low barriers in front of them. A nice example is the artist Seth Price, who designed and incorporated such cords in a recent exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum. Apart from keeping the visitors at a safe distance, they connect works and spaces, occasionally hold artwork, and link the exhibition as a whole.

Fig.3 Seth Price, Double Hunt (2006) and Folklore US (2012), collection artist, on exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, spring 2017

Fig.3 Seth Price, Double Hunt (2006) and Folklore US (2012), collection artist, on exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, spring 2017

The artist designed the safety devices and incorporated them in different ways in his exhibition.

Photo Sandra Weerdenburg, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

23However, cords or barriers are not so easy to implement for many objects, because they often have to stand free in the space, or because it would distract visually from the work. Both cords and barriers pose the risk that visitors might stumble over them, which has happened at various times.

  • Placing works on a low platform, with or without cords, usually works well.

  • Hanging works high, when appropriate for the work.

  • Safe routing, so that nothing stands ‘in the way’.

  • More guards in the gallery, but this is very expensive.

  • Security cameras are useful, but often only for investigating the circumstances of damage after the event. They do not seem to actually prevent much damage or touching.


24Providing visitors with information as they enter, via a brochure in which they are asked not to touch, signs, etc.

  • Hanging up samples of various materials that visitors may touch, in order to demonstrate how this makes things dirty (and damaged). This must be situated where many people pass by, and it can again be misinterpreted as permission to touch any materials.

  • Try to prevent confusion about an object‘s function, vulnerability, or use.

Concluding remarks

25One might say in general that, due to artistic and display technology considerations, so much modern art does not lend itself very well to adequate physical protection from the public. This is mostly a result of the variety of forms of modern objects, and the fact that objects of different disciplines are regularly displayed in a mixed arrangement.

26Physical damage to objects is very artistically and aesthetically obtrusive. In addition, reduction in value can be an issue, and the treatment of damage is often time-consuming and expensive. Currently, we do not have the complete solution to prevent damage, but we do use a combination of the methods mentioned here, supplemented with other measures. Nevertheless, we remain regularly surprised by certain incidents in the galleries; it is impossible to always anticipate what might happen everywhere.

27Overall, probably a very important method to prevent damage is to adequately inform museum visitors: most works simply are vulnerable and accessible. This perhaps demands a broader approach than the single efforts of individual museums, because it would seem to be largely a question of mentality.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 Edward Kienholz, The Beanery (1965)
Caption Dog at ‘hand height’, with much of its fur removed because of frequent touching by the public.
Credits Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Photo Anna Lagana
File image/jpeg, 500k
Title Fig. 2 Maarten Baas, Clay Table with Drawer, (2006-2011)
Caption The drawer was frequently moved by the public during exhibition.
Credits Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
File image/jpeg, 148k
Title Fig.3 Seth Price, Double Hunt (2006) and Folklore US (2012), collection artist, on exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, spring 2017
Caption The artist designed the safety devices and incorporated them in different ways in his exhibition.
Credits Photo Sandra Weerdenburg, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
File image/jpeg, 2.4M
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Electronic reference

Sandra Weerdenburg, Netta Krumperman, Rebecca Timmermans and Tessa Rietveld, « The many forms of ‘vandalism’ in relation to modern art », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 09 December 2018, connection on 26 May 2019. URL :

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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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