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Mom, Daughter Damage Sculpture at Susquehanna Art Museum

September 11, 2018 2:11 PM | Office IFCPP (Administrator)

Reposted from PennLive

Harrisburg artist Sean Matthews worked for nearly two years to design and create his exhibit titled, "Recycled Play," which features children's playthings transformed into conceptual art.

His main piece, called "Fair and Square," featured a life-sized swing set and required 60 hours of welding alone, to suspend two chains in mid-air simulating the scales of justice. The piece inspired by his own four daughters was insured for $5,000.

But ten minutes into the grand opening of the exhibit Aug. 17 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, a mother and daughter dismantled the piece in mere seconds.

The women walked under the swing set, grabbed the swings, and pulled them down, ruining the installation.

"I looked away for a moment and then, boom, it's down," said Alice Anne Schwab, the museum director. "The swings were swinging...We were just devastated. The visitors mistakenly assumed they were supposed to play on the swings that were suspended."

Schwab said she told the women they could not touch the art, but the women then strolled to the back of the museum, where they picked up an "hourglass" sand clock, which was part of a different sculpture, even though that exhibit also had a "no-touch" label on the wall.

Although museum officials posted labels and printed an informative guide that explained the meaning behind the exhibit, the women apparently didn't see the signs. And it's clear from video surveillance that the women didn't pick up the available guides.

The women reportedly told Schwab that they believed they were supposed to touch everything.

At least one national expert said he could see where the exhibit could be confusing to visitors. A combination of factors culminated in this accident, said Wayne LaBar, the executive director at Powerhouse Science Center in Durango, Colorado, who has 30 years of experience in exhibition design and development. He watched a 15-minute video that showed the women entering the museum, touching the sculptures, then leaving.

"The artist has used items in his work that are very suggestive of interaction in normal, everyday use," LaBar said. "So they're semi-enticing to go up and use. I'm not surprised this happened."

In addition, LaBar said, some of the pieces did encourage touching, including two small vending machines that gave unique wood and ceramic "prizes," in exchange for four quarters.

Overall, LaBar said, the exhibit was set up in the museum space in a way that seemed to encourage physical engagement.

"That message was being somewhat sent to visitors," he said. "That's some of the power of the art as well. But it's a double-edged sword."

To discourage touching, the museum should have used barriers or other undeniable signals, because "there is documented evidence that people don't read signs. Depending on signs would not be the thing to do," he said. "I didn't see any physical things that messaged to me that things are hands-off. If you see enough velvet ropes, you get the idea that you're not allowed in there."

There was one set of ropes restricting access to another of Matthew's pieces staged in the former bank vault at the museum. In at least two instances, someone climbed over the rope and rearranged items that were carefully arranged to create the "art," Matthews said.

Part of the problem with the mishaps were staffing levels, according to Matthews and Schwab. If someone from the museum had been paying more attention to the women at the swing set, they could have been stopped before the installation was ruined, Matthews said.

Scwhab noted the women arrived shortly after the exhibit opened at 5 p.m. for a Third in the Burg free event at the museum. The museum typically doesn't get busy until later, Schwab said, so two volunteers who normally would have been at the front of the museum to greet guests had not yet arrived.

"Had it been 15 minutes later, we would have been more proactive," she said. "It was a fluke moment where we didn't have anyone standing at the door."

Schwab was so stunned at the damage, because nothing like it had occurred at the museum before, she didn't even get the names of the women for possible restitution. They abruptly left after being scolded a second time.

After Matthews posted the video on his Facebook page, however, a woman reached out to him and said it was her and her daughter. She asked him to take the video down and said it was an accident.

PennLive could not reach the woman for comment or to confirm the age of her daughter, who appeared to be in her late teens or early 20s.

The installation could not be repaired back to its original state. When Matthews tried to reset the chains, one set snapped in half and the other set collapsed in sections back into individual chain links instead of the taut strands.

Matthews said he had to stand by his sculpture for the next three hours explaining to other guests who had come out to see his show how the installation was supposed to look.

Since the exhibit was still scheduled for display through Nov. 4, Matthews quickly repurposed the installation into a memorial, complete with a steel fence gate, a photo of the original sculpture, and an array of tiny stuffed animals.

Matthews is now waiting to hear whether the museum's insurance company will reimburse him for his partial loss of the original sculpture. Schwab said the insurance company was still investigating, as the situation "is a tricky matter ... they could look at this like it was just sets of chains purchased from Lowe's that were soldered or a piece of art that can't be put back together."

Schwab said better communication between her and Matthews prior to the exhibit opening could have helped. As it happened, she and the artist were trying to balance protecting the exhibit with public access to the installations and the artist's vision.

Matthews said he wanted people to be able to walk under the swing set, but "never in my wildest dreams did I think that two people would get on either side of it and yank down the swings simultaneously."

Even though his vending machine installations were interactive, Matthews said, the rest of the exhibit was not.

"If you had a station where people could paint a brush stroke on a canvas, that wouldn't mean they could walk through the rest of the museum painting on every single painting," he said.

Museum visitors should treat all items in a museum as if they are owned by someone else, because they are, LaBar said.

"How would you like it if a stranger was going into your house? How would you like them to react to your stuff? Would you want them to sit on everything and touch everything and start the toaster?" he said. "Instead, look for permission to do that."

The incident in Harrisburg was the latest in a series of art mishaps at museums, convention centers and national monuments across the world.

  • A family in Kansas got a bill for $132,000 in June after their 5-year-old son "hugged" a statue at a community center that collapsed onto him and broke. The family's insurance company paid the city for the damage.
  • Earlier this year, a visitor trying to snap a selfie at a Washington museum fell into a patch of glass pumpkin sculptures, breaking one of them.
  • Last year, an 800-year-old stone coffin in Britain was damaged after relatives put a child into it for a photo. When the child got out of the coffin, a piece of stone broke off. The family left without reporting the damage, according to a report in the New York Times.
  • Two children in Shanghai last year touched an angel statue at a glass museum while their parents recorded video of the interaction. One child then pulled the sculpture away from the wall, breaking it.
  • A man fiddling with a rare sculptural clock mounted on the wall at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Lancaster caused it to fall to the floor in 2016, where pieces broke off. 

Increasingly, people have taken to desecrating art and national monuments due to a "degradation" in the idea that things are "hands-off," LaBar said.

"Everything seems more interactive in our lives and we're more likely to involve ourselves in everything and taking selfies and that whole side of the equation," he said. "It's just a change in the culture."

A change that museum directors should take close note of, he said.

"In general," he said, "museums probably need to be more conscious of sending consistent messages to visitors."

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