INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION FORCULTURAL PROPERTY PROTECTION
Reposted from The New Yorker
The first thing Stéphane Breitwieser steals from Belgium’s Art & History Museum is an index card. Folded in half and set inside a partially empty display case, it reads, in French, “Objects Removed for Study.” The museum contains one of the largest collections of art and antiquities in Europe, but Breitwieser immediately recognizes that, for his purposes, its most valuable item is the notecard. He jimmies open the case, pockets the card, and, together with his girlfriend and accomplice, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, strolls onward. To anyone who happens to notice them, they look like a happy, art-loving young couple enjoying a date at a museum, which, in a sense, they are.
A few rooms later, another display case catches Breitwieser’s eye. This one is filled with fantastically ornate sixteenth-century silver objects, including goblets, chalices, and a miniature warship. The lock, he notices, is high end but poorly installed; he smacks the top and the cylinder drops out of its housing and into the display case. Breitwieser helps himself to two chalices and a tankard, then sets the index card down where they used to be. Only when he and Kleinklaus have reached his car does he realize that he has left the lid of the tankard behind. That won’t do. He is an aesthetic perfectionist; a topless tankard will be a torment to him. Kleinklaus knows this about her boyfriend and, although he is usually the improvisational genius, she can hold her own when circumstances require it. She takes out one of her earrings and returns to the entrance, Breitwieser in tow. When she shows the guard her remaining earring and says she thinks she knows where she lost the other one, he lets them both back inside. At the display case, Breitwieser takes the tankard lid, along with—why not?—two additional goblets.
They return two weeks later. The index card is still in the case. So is the warship, which Breitwieser puts in Kleinklaus’s purse. Then, from the same display, he nicks a two-foot-tall chalice, which he stuffs up the sleeve of his coat, making it impossible to bend his left arm. The pair are on their way to the exit when a guard asks to see their tickets. Kleinklaus’s is at the bottom of her purse, beneath the ship. Breitwieser’s is in his left pocket, which he can’t access with his left hand. He reaches across his body, like a man drawing a sword, fishes out the ticket, hands it to the guard, and explains that they’re just headed to the museum café to grab a bite to eat. The guard waves them on, and they go to the café, sit down with their ill-gotten goods, and have lunch.
All this is recounted, thrillingly, in “The Art Thief” (Knopf), by the journalist Michael Finkel. It is his third book, and also the third one to search for meaning—moral, aesthetic, existential—in criminal acts. This is an interest he comes by honestly, or, more precisely, dishonestly. In 2002, Finkel, who was then a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, plummeted from grace when the protagonist of an article he wrote, about allegations of child slavery on West African cocoa plantations, turned out to be a composite character. The Times fired him and soon afterward published a lengthy correction, which took his transgressions from private to public and took a sledgehammer to his reputation.
An hour and a half before that correction ran, Finkel got a phone call from a fellow-reporter. To his surprise, confusion, relief, and horror, the man was not calling about his journalistic offenses; he was calling to ask if Finkel was aware that someone named Christian Longo, who was accused of and would later confess to murdering his wife and three young children in Oregon, had recently been captured in Mexico, where he had adopted the identity of a writer he admired—Michael Finkel of the Times Magazine. Real and faux Finkel began to correspond, and both men’s misdeeds became fodder for the writer’s first book, “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.” A dozen years later, Finkel published “The Stranger in the Woods,” an account of a man named Christopher Knight, who, for twenty-seven years, lived in the forests of central Maine entirely outdoors and alone, getting by on the haul from a decades-long burglary streak that kept him in both necessities and luxuries: food, clothing, batteries, propane tanks, sleeping bags, mattresses, books, television sets, handheld games.
Now comes “The Art Thief,” which documents a different kind of crime, one that circumvents both the moral horror of murder and the mundanity of petty theft. From 1994 to 2001, Breitwieser, working mostly with Kleinklaus but sometimes alone, stole at a pace unprecedented in the history of art: roughly three out of four weekends per year for eight years, resulting in some three hundred purloined works of art. He plied his craft during business hours, in museums and galleries and auction houses, with tourists and docents and security guards milling around. He never wore a mask and rarely disguised himself at all. He carried no weapons, never hurt anyone, and never threatened to hold anyone hostage. He did not use the art he stole to fund other illegal activities or sustain an extravagant life style. He simply took it home to those attic rooms and admired it.
As illegal activities go, the crime spree of Stéphane Breitwieser was decorous, electrifying, and, for all its outrageousness, familiar. As a form of entertainment, “The Art Thief” has less in common with Finkel’s earlier books than with movies such as “Ocean’s Eleven.” Like that film, it unmistakably belongs to the genre of the heist, a category of entertainment so fun and frictionless that it is easy to skate right past the obvious question it raises. Why, given our over-all disapproval of theft, are stories about heists so appealing—to so many of us, and specifically to Michael Finkel?
A heist, to be clear, is not a legal category. If you are caught with a Rembrandt in your raincoat on the way out of the Louvre, you will not be charged with attempted heist. The term is pure slang, coined in America in the nineteen-twenties, a high-water decade for crimes of all kinds. It likely comes from “hoist,” either in the sense of hoisting someone up to shimmy through a window or in that other sense of picking something up, the one implied by “shoplifting.” But no one has ever described the pilfering of a can of Red Bull and a pack of condoms as a heist; indeed, real-life crimes are only infrequently characterized that way. For the most part, “heist” suggests less a specific illegal action than the form of entertainment that depicts it.
Although the heist genre shares a border with mystery novels, spy novels, true crime, and crime fiction, it has its own distinctive conventions, the first of which is that the object of the theft must be spectacularly valuable. Steal thirty thousand dollars or a Rolex watch and it’s a crime; steal thirty million dollars or the Hope Diamond and it’s a heist. Second, that object must be taken from an institution of significant standing. Heists do not occur at Sunoco stations or suburban homes; they happen in banks, preferably on Wall Street, or museums, preferably the Met. Third, the theft must be borderline impossible. That’s why every heist plot pauses at some point to explain why, for instance, the thieves have to rob not one casino but three at the same time (as in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the aforementioned “Ocean’s Eleven,” among the most genre-satisfying of all heist films), or why they have to steal not one car but fifty in less than three days (as in the 2000 remake of “Gone in 60 Seconds,” which features Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie in what you might call a car-studded cast: among others, an Aston Martin, a Ferrari Testarossa, a Lamborghini Diablo, a Bentley Arnage, and a 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500). Give or take some paraphrasing, in almost every heist story someone says, “It can’t be done.”
But it can, of course; you just need the right criminals. That’s the fourth convention of the heist: assembling a team. Its members are typically underworld all-stars, each one the master of a highly specialized skill: picking pockets, counting cards, hacking computers, back-flipping over motion detectors, strolling into Sotheby’s with so much savoir faire as to seem like a legitimate customer. Collectively, they illustrate the point, made by, of all people, Aristotle, that just as there are outstanding doctors and musicians there are also “perfect thieves,” who “have no deficiency in respect of the form of their peculiar excellence.” According to a fifth convention, however, when we first encounter these perfect thieves they are wasting their talents on petty chicanery or attempts at moral rectitude; a sixth convention is that at least one of them has retired and must be dragged back into a life of crime for one last irresistible gig. (In a nice meta move, Soderbergh came out of retirement to direct “Logan Lucky”—essentially an Appalachian “Ocean’s Eleven,” in which the West Virginian protagonists set out to rob a Nascar speedway.)
Perhaps the most crucial convention of the heist story, however, is that, despite possessing so many illicit aptitudes, the thieves must barely seem like criminals. Often, they reassure us that they steal for pleasure rather than for profit, delighting either in the work itself or in the specific item they are stealing. (“I didn’t do it for the money,” Cage’s character declares in “Gone in 60 Seconds.” “I did it for the cars.”) When the thieves are motivated by profit, their victims are presented as so wealthy and corrupt that they deserve to be robbed. Per the logic of Robin Hood, it’s appropriate to steal from the rich as long as you redistribute the bounty to the poor; per the logic of the heist, it’s appropriate to steal from the rich because they are rich. The implication—a comfortable one in today’s one-per-cent world—is that anyone affluent enough to own so much desirable stuff didn’t come by it honestly, either.
In short, in a heist story the bad guys are basically the good guys. At worst, they are cheerfully and debonairly amoral (as in “Ocean’s Eight,” the all-female entry in the franchise, whose plot involves an ethically indefensible but nonetheless enjoyable theft at the Met Gala of a whole lot of bling); at best, they are righting some grievous wrong (as in “Inside Man,” where the target of the heist is a Nazi collaborator). Much of the time, though, they are either robbing other criminals (as in “The Italian Job”), for whom one can have only so much sympathy, or simply getting their due (as in “Logan Lucky,” where the heisters retain just enough of their haul to leave behind their hardscrabble lives). In keeping with this ethic of ethicalness, many heists are bloodless, or largely so; if they deal out violence or death at all, it is only to the truly wicked.
Not all of these conventions appear in every heist story, of course, but taken together they define an identifiable category while allowing for endless riffing. Wes Anderson’s 2009 animated film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a heist narrative, as is the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” about Philippe Petit’s illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers—a planning-filled, panache-filled, victimless crime at a major institution. Heists of all kinds also appear in books of all kinds: in fiction that ranges from the potboilerish (Gerald A. Browne’s “11 Harrowhouse”) to the ambitious (Colson Whitehead’s “Harlem Shuffle”), and in nonfiction that details the theft of valuable goods from the obvious to the absurd: gold, diamonds, pearls, cash, rare books, rare maps, rare feathers, rocks from the moon.
Of all the priceless objects in the world, however, perhaps none lend themselves so well to the heist narrative as works of art. That’s not just because art is expensive, housed in grand institutions, and difficult to steal. It is also because anyone motivated to steal art—for art’s sake, as the convention dictates—seems intrinsically refined, the kind of genteel thief whose moral lapses are overshadowed by excellent taste. This idealized criminal reached its fictional apotheosis in the 1999 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” (another remake, like many good heist movies), which stars Pierce Brosnan as an art thief so charming and cultivated that the insurance investigator tasked with trying to catch him falls in love with him instead. But, as the actual people responsible for catching art thieves understand, Thomas Crown is not merely fictional but also fantastical. A thief like him—daring and skilled, but also motivated by aesthetics and deeply knowledgeable about art—is a figment of our collective imagination: so virtually every police officer, detective, and museum-security expert would have told you, until Stéphane Breitwieser came along.
How does such a highly improbable person come to exist? The backstory, Finkel tells us, is this: Breitwieser was a troubled and solitary young man who, via the divorce of his parents, fell from the upper classes—a life of boating on Lake Geneva and skiing in the Alps—to a considerably lower rung of society. For him, the symbol of that fall and its essential injustice was that he went from enjoying a home filled with high art and antique weaponry to living with his mother in an apartment decorated with cheap movie posters and, horror of horrors, ikea furniture. After graduating from high school, he flitted from job to job, beginning with a brief stint as a museum guard, the last day of which he celebrated by stealing a fifteen-hundred-year-old Merovingian belt buckle. Eventually, he met and fell in love with Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, a nurse’s aide with good taste and a calm demeanor, who later moved in with him in the attic rooms of his mother’s new home—small, but an upgrade from the apartment. The couple enjoyed visiting museums together, and one day, at a little one in an Alsatian village, they admired a flintlock pistol whose chief virtue, from Breitwieser’s perspective, was that it was nicer than any his father owned. She urged him to take the pistol and he did; they got away with it, and got a taste for it.
Unlike most art thieves but very much like a classic heist hero, Breitwieser steals art because he loves it. He spends his free time reading histories of art, biographies of artists, and catalogues raisonnés, and he tells Finkel that beautiful objects should be liberated from the “prison” of museums so that they can be experienced appropriately: at length, up close, in the privacy of his bedroom. Almost any of the works he steals could net him a small fortune, and plenty of them—a Brueghel, a Watteau, a Lucas Cranach the Elder—are worth a large one, yet he refuses to sell any. Instead, he lives off his mother’s patience, his girlfriend’s meagre salary, and intermittent low-wage jobs, leaving him so short on money that, Finkel writes, “even on getaway drives he avoids paying highway tolls.” But then, Breitwieser isn’t big on getaway drives in the first place; like the classic heist hero, he disapproves of haste, violence, and drama of all kinds. The best theft, to his mind, is not so much stylish as invisible.
In one crucial respect, however, Breitwieser is nothing like Thomas Crown. Most heist narratives feature plans so elaborate that they constitute much of the plot, but Breitwieser generally undertakes his thefts with no real forethought. He simply spots something he likes in a museum or, sometimes, in a museum brochure or an auction catalogue; either way, only once he is standing in front of the object of his desire does he devise a strategy for stealing it. Part of what makes Finkel’s book so much fun is that, without exception, those strategies are insane. To be specific, some are insanely risky: when Breitwieser realizes that a crossbow he covets is hanging by a wire from the ceiling, too high to reach, he drags a chair the length of the weapons hall, climbs on top, and unhitches the bow from the wire. Others are insanely simple: when a security camera turns out to be aimed at the work he wants to steal, he just keeps his back to the lens throughout the theft. Others are insanely spontaneous: when he and Kleinklaus are attending the European Fine Art Fair, a venue full of both undercover and uniformed security, a more foolhardy thief attempts to steal something and is promptly apprehended. Without any premeditation, Breitwieser takes advantage of the moment—the melee, the rubbernecking, the guards all flocking to the scene—to nick an extremely valuable Renaissance painting.
How does he pull off such thefts again and again? With shocking minimalism. There is no rappelling from roofs, no triggering of fire alarms, no high-tech devices to shut down security systems. His gear consists chiefly of a Swiss Army knife and, weather permitting, an overcoat. Kleinklaus stands lookout, giving him a nod when all is clear and coughing when trouble is coming. He uses the knife to slice open the silicone seal on display cases, unscrew art work from its base (in one instance, extracting thirty screws in a single visit, one patient turn at a time), and pry off the nails holding paintings in their frames—never to cut the canvas itself, an act he regards with abhorrence. Then, with precise timing, fleetness of motion, and the courage of his convictions, he picks up the object, stashes it in Kleinklaus’s bag or on his person, and unhurriedly makes his way to the exit.
As all this suggests, you learn a lot from “The Art Thief” about the limitations of museum security. One is built into the nature of the institution: unlike banks, museums must keep their valuables where the public can see them. Moreover, they must minimize the barriers between the viewer and the work. It would be difficult to steal a painting that had iron bars in front of it, like the windows of a ground-floor Manhattan apartment, but it would also be difficult to enjoy it. Another problem is that security systems are expensive, and most museums, especially smaller local ones, are reluctant to allocate money to upgrade them. As a result, many museums have far fewer effective safeguards than you might imagine.
For these reasons, museum security relies heavily on the intuition and attentiveness of employees, who, like all of us, can be distracted, beguiled, or bamboozled. In one episode, when Breitwieser and Kleinklaus decide to take a brief break from stealing, they join a museum tour, which they would ordinarily never do, since it means that at least one staff member could identify them. Midway through, Breitwieser has a revelation: “Something that a thief would obviously never do is precisely what a thief should consider doing.” He pulls off a theft mid-tour, then does it again and again during other tours in other places. Generalizing from the same principle, he and Kleinklaus start exchanging pleasantries with guards, asking them directions, and waving goodbye when they leave with millions of dollars’ worth of art tucked into their bags and clothing. Even more brashly, Breitwieser likewise plays against type when dealing with law enforcement. After one theft, when he discovers that someone has keyed his car, he himself phones the police, who inspect the vehicle while stolen art sits in its trunk. On another occasion, he leaves a museum to find a cop in the process of issuing him a parking ticket—cheap as ever, he hadn’t fed the meter—and protests vociferously while carrying six square feet of plundered altarpiece panels in his jacket.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Breitwieser’s methods, however, is not their simplicity or their brazenness but their efficacy. “In the three hundred years that public museums have existed,” Finkel tells us, “very few individuals or gangs have pulled off a dozen or more heists.” Breitwieser pulls one off every dozen days. He has been known to steal twice in a single weekend, and to steal from three different museums in the same day. When a French art detective finally notices a pattern and compiles a list of fourteen separate incidents he thinks could be related, he concludes that, if a lone outfit is responsible for even half of them, it is “astoundingly active.” A Swiss inspector who also picks up the trail suspects that a single thief might have stolen between ten and twenty paintings from European museums. At the time, sixty-nine such paintings are adorning Breitwieser’s attic walls.
This ultra-lucrative, odds-defying crime streak is wonderfully narrated by Finkel, in a tale whose trajectory is less rise and fall than crazy and crazier. Only briefly does his book lag, in its discussions of the alleged science of our attraction to art, which, in addition to partaking uncritically of the mania for explaining all of human experience by waving in the general direction of evolution and MRIs, is top to bottom wrong. Darwin’s theory of natural selection does not state that our species survives “only by eliminating inefficiency and waste,” art does not exist “because we’ve won the evolutionary war,” and beauty is not “in the medial orbital-frontal cortex of the beholder.” Even when the science is plausible, it flattens rather than sharpens Finkel’s tale. Maybe there really are neurochemical imbalances “capable of creating an unstoppable and sometimes criminal collector.” But more likely, such an imbalance is one of many factors implicated in obsessive collecting, or cannot be clearly established as a cause rather than as a corollary or an effect of underlying issues; in any case, it is hardly a satisfying explanation for a figure as fascinating as Breitwieser. Of the who, what, when, where, and why of crime, it is always the last question that is hardest to answer; better to acknowledge the depth of the mystery than wave it away with flimsy science.
But that is just a quibble. Over all, “The Art Thief,” like its title character, has confidence, élan, and a great sense of timing. It is propelled by suspense and surprises, and it is neither ashamed of nor stingy with the fundamental emotional payoffs of the heist—the disbelieving No way!, the unabashed glee at the deft accomplishment of the seemingly impossible and definitely illegal. Nor does it hesitate, when the time comes, to bring down the boom. In the final chapters of Finkel’s book, his dashing young antihero turns old and sad. His relationship with Kleinklaus falls apart (even as she and Breitwieser’s mother emerge as perhaps the most fascinating characters in the book, and arguably the most morally compromised). The claim that he takes scrupulous care of his art falls apart. The claim that he never sells anything he steals falls apart. The claim that he is not just a glorified shoplifter falls apart. In short, his whole life falls apart, and the book takes a hard, appropriate turn toward disgust and sorrow. Finkel, who has been to his own rock bottom, is both clear-eyed and compassionate about the downfall, but something more than sympathy lingers in his tone. It is a kind of wistful admiration—a yearning, even at the bitter end, to believe that an art thief is more than just another thief, a heist more than just another crime.
The epigraph to “The Art Thief” is a maxim of Oscar Wilde’s: “Aesthetics are higher than ethics.” That was an incendiary idea in its time (and for that matter remains a provocation in today’s morally anxious literary culture), but what Wilde meant by it is a far cry from what Finkel implies by using it in his book. Wilde believed that, contrary to the claims of sentimentalism and of generations of prudish literary critics, the quality of a work of art does not depend on its ethical purity—that art depicting the degraded, the depraved, or the wicked can still be beautiful. Finkel, by contrast, suggests that aesthetics are higher than ethics not when it comes to assessing artistic merit but in the world at large: that beauty trumps morality no matter the context.
This is an idea he has propounded before. “I hope readers know that this was an attempt to reach higher—to make something beautiful, frankly,” he told a reporter at New York a week or so after his career came crashing down. The only problem with his Times article, he argued, was “the journalistic techniques employed”: “Look, I wrote a 6,000-word story without a single quote, without a blink in the shift of tone and pace. It was an ambitious attempt. I slipped. It deserved a correction. But there is a great deal of accuracy. Not once has the prose been called into question.” Of course, claiming that there is a great deal of accuracy in a story that also contains a great deal of fabrication is akin to pointing out that some of the house you have set on fire is still standing. But everything else about this defense is repellent, too: the notion that a story about exploited African children could “reach higher” by treating them as interchangeable; the insinuation that, in the face of such allegedly bravura writing, only a philistine would care about facts.
In “True Story,” published three years later, Finkel offered a far more thoroughgoing mea culpa, but I have seldom read a book that made me so queasy. From early on, it is evident that Finkel and Longo are engaged in an act of mutual exploitation: the murderer needs an audience to test out different strategies for winning over a jury, while the journalist needs a story that will help restore his devastated career. To get that story, Finkel is by turns manipulative, obsequious, and appallingly cozy, sharing with Longo the details of his love life, putting him on the phone with his girlfriend, and making him the first person to know of his plan to propose to her. Meanwhile, he interrogates his own dishonesty, maintaining that he never committed any other professional indiscretions but admitting that he lied profligately in his personal life—to cover up his serial infidelity, to gain sympathy, to burnish his reputation, or just for the heck of it. He pretended to be Canadian; he claimed he could speak French; most troubling, he curried intimacy with a woman by telling her that he had a brother who had died in infancy. If Finkel emerges from all this soul-baring and murderer-befriending more chastened than before, he also emerges as difficult to like and even harder to admire.
In a way, Finkel’s subsequent career makes sense; again and again, he is drawn to stories of men and their transgressions. Still, in some respects, “The Stranger in the Woods” was a surprising next act. It is a nuanced and compassionate book, and Finkel is thoughtful on the moral dilemmas raised by the North Pond hermit, as Christopher Knight was routinely called—above all, on how a just society should respond to the nonviolent crimes of a man so clearly unfit to live within its limits. The questions at the heart of that book prefigure those animating “The Art Thief”: To whom do the rules apply? And: How much should we forgive someone for their crimes because their life is exceptional?
Finkel’s interest in such questions is self-evident, and “The Art Thief” has the feel of a book whose author has finally found his ideal subject. In the genre of the heist, where elegance really does trump ethics, we are called upon to admire people we should not, and Finkel is gifted at making us do so—presumably because, to him, that kind of admiration comes naturally. The clearest tell comes at the end of “The Art Thief,” in the “Note on the Reporting” that details his research and sourcing. That note, which simultaneously serves to acknowledge his past misdeeds and to attempt to quiet any ongoing concerns, includes a story that does not appear elsewhere in the text. He and his subject are driving to the scene of one of Breitwieser’s crimes, at the home of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, now a museum, and on the way they stop at a busy rest area. In lieu of paying seventy cents to use the bathroom, Breitwieser ducks under the turnstile so swiftly and gracefully that no one but Finkel notices. Then he turns to the author and gestures at him to follow suit.
Finkel declines. Unsure of his agility, he is embarrassed by the thought of getting caught, both in the middle of the turnstile and in the middle of committing such a silly offense. But those are practical objections, not moral ones. Invited to act without considering the consequences, to flout the rules in plain sight, to join the fellowship of first-class miscreants, Finkel responds in a way as revealing as anything in his many mea culpas: “I wanted to.”
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Reposted from Vanity Fair
On a Friday in June 2022, a swarm of federal agents piled out of government vans and into the Orlando Museum of Art, a 98-year-old institution abutted by several lakes in the central Florida city. The feds moved past staffers and crowds there to see “Heroes & Monsters,” an exhibition filled with what were billed as never-before-seen works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. When the show had opened several months earlier that February, thousands came through in its first few days. Attendance was up 500% during the exhibition.
But questions about the authenticity of the works had dogged the show and now the feds had arrived, warrant in hand, seemingly confirming the doubters. The day before the raid, a US magistrate judge had signed an application to secure a search warrant filed by the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which indicated the works on the wall could actually be contraband—“fruits of crime, or other items illegally possessed,” as their application put it. The agents proceeded to strip the walls while visitors there to peruse and spend money at the gift shop stocked with Basquiat-themed merch, looked on. By that evening it was national news.
All the while, Aaron De Groft, the director of the museum, was in Italy on vacation with his wife. He was fired four days later. “They simply cut off my email,” he told me this spring in his first extensive interview since his dismissal. Still, it wasn’t a complete shock. The FBI had been investigating the so-called Basquiats for almost a decade, and the Bureau issued a subpoena to the museum in July 2021. In February 2022, the month the show opened, The Orlando Weekly reported that the FBI had seized computers in the weeks leading up to the exhibition’s debut, and The New York Times ran a story that delved into the paintings’ mysterious provenance. The affidavit said that the FBI might possess enough evidence to charge individuals with conspiracy and wire fraud—evidence that showed the works’ owners may have been attempting to sell forged art, which would be a felony. The timing of the June raid was apt. The show was set to close in less than a week, and the paintings were to travel to Italy, outside the art unit’s jurisdiction.
For almost a year after the raid nothing seemed to happen and, as I began reporting this story, the case was something like an Art World Unsolved Mystery. Were the paintings indeed faked? And, if so, how had they wound up making such a splash? The investigation appeared to be stalled, or even abandoned. The paintings remain seized; De Groft remained out of work. The Orlando Museum of Art turned over its walls to the late artist Purvis Young, followed by the exhibition “From the Andes to the West Indies: Spanish Colonial Paintings from the Thoma Collection.”
Then, in April, a break: US attorney Martin Estrada filed notice of a plea deal between the Central District of California and North Hollywood auctioneer Michael Barzman, a key character in the raid-on-Basquiat extended universe. According to filings made public with the plea, when the FBI interviewed Barzman nine days before agents obtained the warrant for their raid last June, he explained he’d sold artworks “in the manner of” Basquiat to three of the same people, according to the affidavit, who went on to lend them to the show in Orlando. (The affidavit refers to people by their initials but their identities have been confirmed by various reports.) The catalog for the show also mentions Barzman, referring to him as the “small-time Los Angeles auctioneer” who said he found the paintings in a storage unit that he purchased in Los Angeles. The affidavit also says that Barzman signed a sworn statement that he had sold works to the clients who later loaned them to the Orlando Museum of Art, creating a clear, if remarkable, narrative for the work.
In October, with Barzman’s partial confession still under wraps and the mystery still lingering publicly, the feds met with him once again, bringing along a work they had seized. Agents explained to their interrogatee that affixed to that same oilstick-and-acrylic-paint-on-cardboard artwork, hidden behind thick impasto purportedly by Basquiat, was a shipping sticker with none other than Mike Barzman’s name and address. Barzman “claimed that he had never seen the work and said that he had no idea how a shipping label bearing his information got on the back of it,” reads the plea arrangement.
Eight days later, Barzman met with the federal agents again, and finally blurted out what some had suspected the entire time: he had made all of the “Basquiats” himself, along with a friend (identified in the plea as J.F.), creating some of the pieces in as little as five minutes, and sold them over eBay, splitting the profits. Though he sold forged work knowingly, the government declined to charge Barzman with wire fraud and instead levied the lesser offense of making false statements to a government agency, which carries a maximum sentence of five years.
For those who had been closely watching the case, the news brought a sense of finality to the proceedings. Months after the raid—the most scandalous episode in recent US art museum memory—someone admitted guilt. The museum issued a statement offering its support for the plea agreement, appearing to leave no room for debate about the fact that a year ago fake Basquiats were on its walls.
“The Museum is eager for the DOJ to continue its investigation and hold those who committed crimes responsible. When this investigation is closed, and charges are brought, the Museum looks forward to sharing our story regarding the works in question,” a statement from the board chair read.
Barzman has stayed silent since the plea agreement went public and will face sentencing this summer. But Vanity Fair has spoken with sources who were intimately familiar with Barzman around the time he was buying up foreclosed-upon storage units hoping to find forgotten treasure, and we’ve sifted through the various legal documents that contain Barzman’s statements to federal agents. It all amounts to a story of how these paintings once offered as “in the manner of” Jean-Michel Basquiat got in the hands of a group of ambitious owners who managed to get them onto the walls of the Orlando Museum of Art, thanks to a director trying to bring blockbuster audiences to the primary art museum in Florida’s theme park capital. It’s a narrative that makes the 168-page, lavishly produced museum catalog an elaborate fantasy on the level of a season of Game of Thrones.
Michael Barzman also broke his silence to Vanity Fair for the first time since his name shot around the world last month when he admitted to faking the paintings. Barzman’s attorney Joel Koury sent this statement on behalf of his client:
“Over a decade ago, desperate and deep in medical debt from being treated for bone cancer, I made the wrong and terrible decision to forge these works,” reads the statement. “Since then I have tried to do everything I could to rectify my mistake—I am ashamed and sorry for my part in this and hope I can finally move on.”
But the former museum director and the owners of the works aren’t buying it. Over the course of interviews in the days following the plea deal, as well as several lengthy text message conversations, De Groft, a PhD in art history, maintained to me that the paintings he put in the show were authentic and that the plea deal is a conspiracy.
“You know why he was not charged with forgery? Because 25 are right and by Basquiat and provenance on those is right. He did not forge them,” De Groft told me in a text message the day after the plea agreement was announced.
Two days later, he elaborated on his thoughts during a long phone call.
“I think this is a totally sweet-deal cover-up,” said De Groft. “This whole Barzman thing is a huge cover-up. He’s a guy that admits to forging paintings and selling them. And he’s not indicted for forgery or fraud, but he’s indicted by lying to the FBI? Because they said, Well, you can do 15 to 25 or you can do five and we’ll knock it down to 18…. I think they told him, Cop to the whole thing or we’re going to chop you up.” Through his lawyer, Barzman stands by his statement that he forged the works.
The idea that an artwork in a museum could be a forgery—that something potentially worth tens or even hundreds of millions could actually be worthless—is an endless source of fascination, not just for art-world insiders, but for the general public watching from the outside. People have been knocking off art for almost as long as they have been making it. Legend holds that Michelangelo got his start passing off his own work as antiquity. The most famous recent example of an is-it-real-or-fake brouhaha was the Leonardo da Vinci that sold at Christie’s for more than $450 million in 2017, making it the most expensive artwork of all time. Experts authenticated it, but then the Prado Museum categorized the work as “attributed” to Leonardo rather than “by” Leonardo, suggesting the painting was made by the master’s studio. After it was sold, the painting was slated to be displayed but was subsequently pulled without explanation.
But there’s a certain zeitgeist-nailing specificity to a mysteriously dubious Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at age 27—the same Basquiat who Jeffrey Wright played in the 1996 biopic by Julian Schnabel, the same Basquiat whose work appears in Tiffany ads with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, the same Basquiat whose painting was sold to Yusaku Maezawa, an intergalactic-traveling Japanese billionaire, for more than $110 million. Hypebeasts drool over Brooklyn Nets jerseys that have script inspired by the Park Slope–born Basquiat, and his collaborative work with Andy Warhol inspired a recent Broadway play and an exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Last week at Christie’s, a Basquiat sold for $67 million, well above the already impressive estimate of $45 million, when a bidding war erupted in the room. The scandal at the Orlando Museum of Art exploded during the latest of Basquiat’s ongoing pop-culture renaissances, a period during which the artist’s notoriety has saturated the culture so fully that it just might attract a family otherwise in town to visit the Magic Kingdom.
But that very cultural dominance has made Basquiat a favorite of the forgers—and why one might be pressed to prove that a suspicious Basquiat in his or her possession is the real deal. In 2018, years before the Orlando debacle, the market was so lousy with suspected fakes that art authenticator Richard Polskyfelt the need to pen an op-ed for Artnet News that served as a guide for spotting them. Some telltale signs: gold crowns, obvious signatures, painted-on found objects, and a miraculous backstory of why the work has been missing for decades.
Even after Barzman’s plea, nearly every person who played a role in bringing this body of work to the Orlando Museum of Art still maintains the works—and their, it should be said, miraculous backstory—are real. Speaking in the weeks after the deal, many of those with a stake in the game still truly believed they were not just legit Basquiats, but great, weird, and interesting ones too. They were willing to further risk their reputations, insisting that these are works made by Basquiat, works that were found in a Los Angeles storage locker.
The evidence uncovered by the FBI was already daunting, and then the US attorney shed light on the shipping address sticker, the confession, and Barzman’s assertion that he was asked to sign a sworn statement. According to the plea agreement, Barzman claims at least one of the owners dangled as much as $15,000 over him if he just signed a document saying the work came from the storage unit, although in an earlier interview, he said he was offered $5,000.
The owners deny such an offer was ever made, taking Barzman’s assertion in stride, as they have every bombshell in the cast thus far. They remain convinced they’ll be vindicated. “They now say I’m a victim—great, I’m a victim,” Pierce O’Donnell, the celebrity attorney who says he owns six of the works that were in the Orlando show, told me, audibly exasperated, the day after Barzman’s plea deal was announced.
O’Donnell, and other stakeholders I spoke to after the plea, shared a common refrain: at least some of these paintings are real Basquiats.
“Michael Barzman is a proven liar, he lied time and time again,” O’Donnell went on. “Maybe he said, to lower his sentence, that he faked them all? This is just a wrinkle. This is not the final chapter…I just want my six paintings back.” (The sources close to Barzman say the two men never spoke.)
And now the believers have to prove the works’ authenticity before the investigation goes any further, and before we get to the end of most concluded forgery cases: destruction of the contraband.
“It would be a terrible, catastrophic tragedy if they say, Well, this guy said they’re all forged, we’re going to destroy them all,” De Groft said.
Before thinking about the potential end of these works, it’s useful to go back to their origins—or at least the origins of the show that raised them from a curiosity of the storage-locker-wars set to national prominence. De Groft’s lofty ambitions for the museum were a key catalyst in the tale of the so-called Basquiats. These days, it’s not enough for a museum to simply organize and exhibit a solid group of works by institutional-level artists. The competition for eyeballs and wallets may be a bit starker in Orlando, where Disney reigns, but it’s true in every city to some extent. In the last decade or so, museums have had to compete with trendy, art-as-spectacle extravaganzas like the Van Gogh “Immersive Experience,” which reproduces ear-cutting Vincent’s works on grand display in geodesic domes. They have to compete with Instagram catnip like The Museum of Ice Cream and its lowest-common-denominator ilk. And then museums also have to compete with a thousand non-art attention-suckers that make it increasingly hard to get bodies into the galleries without a white-hot name. Jean-Michel Basquiat is one such rarified name, and it was apparently enough to convince De Groft to take a leap of faith.
Since the raid, he’s largely kept his head down about the entire matter. In the months after his dismissal, the Orlando Museum of Art witnessed a hemorrhaging of staff, including trustees and their chief curator. De Groft’s replacement as interim director was Luder Whitlock, the director of a local charitable organization. Less than two months later, he resigned. The museum removed five trustees through a formerly ignored bylaw that stipulates a term-limit they’d exceeded. Then the board chair Cynthia Brumback stepped downafter concerns were raised about how she’d handled the scandal. (Brumback initially replied to a request for comment indicating she would read over questions, and then never responded.) In January, the American Alliance of Museums put the OMA on probation, making it hard, if not impossible, for the museum to borrow or loan out art to other member institutions. That doesn’t happen very often—right now the Orlando Museum of Art is the only one of more than 1,100 accredited institutions listed as under probation on AAM’s website. On April 17, after months without a director, the OMA announced that it had hired Cathryn Mattson, an executive with no museum experience, as its interim CEO.
De Groft is still unemployed—he lost what he says was a $200,000 annual salary—and says that he’s having trouble finding another job. “I got turned down for a job at the National Gallery that I was deemed to be the best qualified for because of…” De Groft told me, trailing off as he got to the obvious. (Both OMA and the National Gallery declined to comment on De Groft for this article.) So he wanted to tell his story. We spoke for the first time in early March.
“I felt, obviously, damaged. I felt terrible, traumatized—I felt this has really, really hurt my wife and I, and my family, and I want my reputation back,” he said. “And they forget the 15% raise I got all the staff, and also the maternity leave that several pregnant mothers did not have until I got there. Everybody forgets all that stuff. It’s like, Oh, Aaron’s just a bad guy that ruined the museum.”
De Groft had arrived at the Orlando Museum of Art in 2021 brimming with confidence, a serious museum-built brain, and a generous spirit who could raise funds and generate headlines—Orlando magazine called him “a fervent scholar with a showman’s flair.” If successful, he would make the institution not just the most important art museum in the state, but one that could compete with Orlando’s world-famous theme parks. He took big swings. Months after starting the job, he announced that the museum would expand with a space downtown in a new skyscraper designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli and DLR Group that would also house downtown Orlando’s first five-star hotel—all reportedly offered rent-freeby the developers. (The museum pulled out of the downtown project before the Basquiat show opened.)
A native of Smithfield, Virginia, De Groft holds a master’s in art history and museum studies from the University of South Carolina, and a PhD from Florida State University. He was a senior curator at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville and then the chief curator at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. In 2005, he was named director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, his alma mater, and immediately set an ambitious exhibition agenda. In 2008, he staged a show of work on loan from the Uffizi Gallery that was dubbed the biggest show in Muscarelle’s history, and followed that with a Michelangelo drawing show in 2013, and then in 2015, a Leonardo drawing show that broke attendance records, seeing more than 60,000 people walk through the doors of the college museum.
Throughout his career, De Groft has displayed a penchant for finding unheralded works for cheap and having them reauthenticated as the real deal. That talent has raised eyebrows, especially after the raid. In the mid-2000s, he took up the cause of a Tennessee lawyer named Thomas Dossett who had insisted for decades that a painting in his collection was really, truly one of Titian’s rare paintings of a duke. After Dossett enlisted De Groft’s help, the then museum director discovered a date he said had been misread on a letter, leading him to believe that the work was genuine. Madeleine Viljoen, former director of the La Salle University Art Museum in Philadelphia and a Renaissance art scholar, said the work could be real, though she wouldn’t be able to authenticate it without seeing it herself.
In 2013, the Muscarelle’s chief curator at the time, John Spike, saw a work for sale at an auction house in Vienna he thought might actually be an unattributed early work by Paul Cézanne, Spike recounted in a 2017 interview. Spike and De Groft made what De Groft has described as a covert trip to Vienna to snap up the work, and later a chemistry professor provided what she deemed was further proof it was indeed a Cézanne. In 2016, the museum acquired what it said it believed was a Peter Paul Rubens study for a work that hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. It was included in a show of other paintings that had recently been acquired by Muscarelle, “The Art and Science of Connoisseurship,” which opened at the museum in 2017.
In Orlando, De Groft said he was trying to do more than mega-museum numbers—he was coming for Disney, coming for SeaWorld. One idea was to create buzzworthy exhibitions to compete with the museums that get offered big-ticket exhibitions, the institutions on the blockbuster show circuit. Orlando is the most visited city in the US. De Groft drew on his history of unveiling recently reattributed masterworks to the public, but this time aimed for something more contemporary. About five years before De Groft started at the museum, O’Donnell began making headlines because of a painting he owned—one he vociferously argued was a real Jackson Pollock waiting to be authenticated that could be worth more than $100 million. The work piqued De Groft’s interest.
Read More at Vanity Fair
Reposted from The New York Times
Twenty men and women in military fatigues huddled around a 19th-century painting of a fiery sunset at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a recent Saturday afternoon. They leaned toward the vivid picture of the Ukrainian wilderness as their tour guide spoke.
“The weaponization of art history,” Alison Hokanson, associate curator of European paintings, told them, “is the weaponization of objects but also the weaponization of the stories that are told through these objects.”
The visit of a reserve unit, the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, based on Staten Island, was part of the Army’s revived program to deploy officers with arts training in a military capacity to save works in conflict zones — a new generation of the Monuments Men who recovered millions of European treasures looted by the Nazis during World War II. The program was announced three years ago but interrupted by Covid and bureaucratic hurdles.
Now Capt. Blake Ruehrwein, an Air Force veteran who also runs education and outreach at the Naval War College Museum in Newport, R.I., was instructing a new unit learning the ropes from some of the world’s top art experts. “Take what you learn from here and apply it,” he told the officers attending the museum workshop in early June. “Protecting culture is everyone’s job.”
The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the Met Museum have teamed up with the Army to help soldiers understand the role that art plays in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. (Last year, The New York Times identified 339 buildings, monuments and other cultural sites that had been heavily damaged or destroyed in the fighting. A notorious example was the destruction by a deadly Russian airstrike of Mariupol’s Drama Theater, a landmark where hundreds of people were sheltering. And recently, the destruction of a dam in southern Ukraine appears to have flooded the house museum of the self-taught artist, Polina Rayko, according to the foundation managing the artist’s legacy.)
“Part of the conversation here is how to document evidence of crimes,” said Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian initiative, who faced many of the same challenges 20 years ago as an arts, monuments and archives officer in Baghdad. “We have worked hard to develop a methodology for documentation. You aren’t just looking for broken objects but evidence of how they were broken.”
In 2022, Capt. Ruehrwein participated in a simulation at the National Museum of the United States Army, in Fort Belvoir, Va., where officers learned the basics of forensic documentation, emergency preparedness and war-zone conservation techniques. There was also a trip to Honduras, where new Monuments officers toured the Mayan ruins of Copán with a local infantry brigade. The partnership focused on how the two countries might strengthen efforts to track and evaluate world heritage sites like these ruins, which can be endangered by natural disasters, vandalism and looting.
“Before you touch or move anything, photograph it,” instructed Lisa Pilosi, head of objects conservation at the Met. “That could be used as evidence in criminal court.”
Pilosi said that Met officials had been working with the military on the protection of cultural heritage since 2013, including efforts to help colleagues in Iraq rebuild their institutions after theft and destruction, but her focus on disaster response has grown through the years as important monuments and artworks have routinely become targets in conflicts.
“My boss likes to joke that this has become my side hustle,” Pilosi said. She has been meeting with the U.S. State Department and Ukrainian officials, including the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska.
“Some letters we had to escalate to security,” said the curator, who asked not to be identified because of safety concerns. “Remember this is a label on a painting, and this is the firestorm that it sparked.”
The Met has added security staff to the European paintings area on the second floor and put some works behind protective glass. But the museum has not stopped its research into reclassifying Ukrainian artists, according to Max Hollein, the Met director. He said in a statement that staff members are studying objects in the collection “with experts in the field,” to determine the best ways of accurately presenting them.
“Scholarly thinking is evolving quickly, because of the increased awareness of and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion,” Hollein said. “We remain committed to this pursuit of knowledge — and to sharing our research and findings with visitors and scholars alike.”
Reposted from Museum Associations
Museums and galleries will be required to increase their preparedness for terrorist attacks under new legislation proposed by the UK Government.
The government has published the draft Terrorism (Protection of Premises) Bill, also known as Martyn’s Law after Martyn Hett, one of the 22 victims of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in 2017.
Martyn’s Law will apply across the whole of the UK and has been developed following extensive consultation with the public, businesses and campaign groups.
To date, the UK’s approach to this type of security has been voluntary. The proposed law will place a new requirement on those responsible for certain publicly accessible locations to consider the threat from terrorism and implement mitigation measures.
The proposals will apply to public premises, including museums, galleries and other visitor attractions, that have a capacity greater than 100 individuals.
The legislation sets out to two tiers: a standard tier for venues with a capacity of 100-799 people, and an enhanced tier for venues with a capacity of 800 plus.
Standard tier premises will be required to undertake basic, low-cost activities to improve their preparedness, including terrorism protection training and evaluating the best procedures to put in place in order to minimise impact.
Enhanced tier premises and events have further requirements in recognition of the potential consequences of a successful attack. This will include appointing a designated senior officer who must regularly review the security of the venue.
The government is currently considering which body will act as the regulator, and premises and events that meet the criteria will be required to register.
An inspection and enforcement regime will be established to promote the requirements in each tier.
The government has produced a Fact Sheet with more information.
Stakeholders can respond to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s call for written evidence on the bill by 23 June.
Reposted from AAM
Recently, we hosted a webinar with museum leaders on values-based communications for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI). While all attendees were eager to commit fully to DEAI, many acknowledged the risks of doing so in polarized times, when divisive rhetoric about DEAI initiatives means the potential for backlash is high. In some cases, this backlash could mean more than a public relations crisis. What if something they do leads to a reduction in funding or patronage?
Their concerns are not uncommon. In our DEAI consulting work with other cultural institutions, like public media organizations, we’ve seen similar moral quagmires where people want to be brave, but not if it’s going to undermine their organizations. This fear is only heightened for non-profits and government entities, which are legally required to be non-partisan, and want to avoid the perception that they aren’t. While organizations can certainly take a stand on DEAI without telling people who to vote for, they are still likely to face criticism for doing so.
So how do you maintain the courage to keep going with your efforts, while feeling secure that they’re appropriate for a non-partisan organization? We suggest a framework inspired by Doctors Without Borders, which takes a values-based approach to analyzing why and when to speak out about atrocities. Before seeking to engage the public about social issues, we advise cultural organizations like public media and museums to be clear about their values and boundaries. And to define those values and boundaries, we recommend following what we call the 4 Ds of non-partisan DEAI:
Let’s explore what we mean by each one.
The D in DEAI stands for diversity. To commit to DEAI means you are committing to inviting people with different ideas and lived experiences into your organization. Your job, as a leader or a colleague, is to help build bridges across this difference. This may mean starting with what you have in common, but it will also require being able to see worth in what makes someone different from you.
When it comes to communicating about DEAI, embracing these differences in perspective can be a useful lesson. Inexperienced practitioners often make the mistake of thinking the work is about getting everyone to have the same mindset or prioritize the same values. That is not realistic, nor is it wise. Sometimes making progress can mean helping people see how their values intersect with yours, like convincing your CFO of the financial benefits of investing in inclusion and equity.
Dehumanization is the process by which certain individuals or groups are portrayed as less-human “others.” It’s easy to see this on large, violent scales like genocide, but it actually starts much earlier, in more commonplace ways that we often miss.
Dehumanization happens when employers treat workers like robots rather than people, by refusing to provide safe working conditions or allow breaks. It happens when we refer to people experiencing addiction or mental illness with judgmental terms like “junkie” or “crazy,” instead of showing empathy for them. It even happens in the museum sector, when institutions sensationalize or make light of traumatic history, like violent imprisonment.
Sometimes dehumanization can come from good intentions, like when we share videos of people with disabilities getting married or running a race to celebrate how they’ve “overcome the odds,” even though they’re just engaging in the same human activities as everyone else. As Emily Ladau explains in her book Demystifying Disability, “inspiration porn” like this can be insidiously dehumanizing, because it reduces people to one-dimensional characters who are only valued for how they overcome obstacles, with an undercurrent of pity or schadenfreude.
Working to stop this cycle of dehumanization in our society should be at the core of your commitment to DEAI, and a guiding value of what you prioritize in engaging the public. It is not something that will happen overnight, and it will often lead to the need to adopt new language, which is where you will likely experience pushback. To handle that scenario, leaders should be able to articulate how old language is dehumanizing and inaccurate while new language is more humanizing and accurate. They should also pick their battles on this front; if people feel they are being shamed for not using the perfect word, they will shut down and reject any progress on DEAI. As Minal often says, intellectual snobbery is the Achilles heel of DEAI.
Rejecting dehumanization may also involve making tough decisions that align with your values more than your pocketbook, like limiting whose support you will accept. We know one public media leader, for instance, who has a gift acceptance policy that mandates their station return money from any donor who expresses racist views. The station then enforced the policy by returning a one-hundred-dollar donation from a listener who called to express that she didn’t like how “Black” the station was starting to sound. Returning the money did not affect the station’s budget, and the incident was never made public, but it sent a clear and galvanizing signal to staff that leadership was willing to take action to live up to the organization’s values.
When Minal first came up with this framework for her book Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives, she only listed three Ds for non-partisan DEAI. We’ve since added this principle on disinformation in response to our work with public media organizations, many of which aim to solve the crisis we face in journalism today, where well-researched news is paywalled and disinformation is free.
However, combating disinformation is also the purview of museums. Research has shown that nonprofits are often seen as significantly more trustworthy sources of information than media outlets. With this power comes the responsibility to tell the truth, even at the risk of upsetting some people. As the name of La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski’s movement goes, museums are not neutral.
But if you’re not neutral, how do you remain non-partisan? How do you convey to your audience that your DEAI initiative is about telling the truth, not advancing a political cause? Here are a few strategies.
First, make sure there is shared language and understanding across the museum (including staff, board, and community) about the difference between non-partisanship and neutrality. Non-partisanship means you will not declare allegiance to one political party or candidate. Neutrality means not taking sides or a stance in a conflict, including moral and social ones. Our world is in dire need of moral courage, people and organizations who can stand up and say clearly that things like dehumanization and environmental abuse are wrong, and conversely, take action to humanize all humans and steward this world we share. Presenting different perspectives, highlighting artists from marginalized groups, working against climate change—these are moral and social issues for which museums can lend their voices without endorsing any political party or candidate.
But to do this most effectively, museums should draw the line from the social advocacy they’re engaging in to their work as a museum. Minal wrote about this after George Floyd was murdered and organizations were tripping over themselves to put out statements that were more virtue signaling than tangible commitments. As a good example of a relevant and substantial statement, she included a screenshot of a Facebook post by a PBS show about personal finance called Two Cents, which listed statistics on racial bias in personal finance and highlighted voices of color in the space. In the museum field, this can look like a zoo speaking out about climate change because of its mission to protect wildlife, or a Holocaust museum speaking out about Black Lives Matter because of its mission to educate about the threats of racism and bigotry. Showing the connection between the issue at hand and your focus as an organization can make your statements feel more credible, since you are trusted as experts in that topic.
Thirdly, focus on fulfilling your mission to educate your community. Your purpose is to educate, not win a debate, so keep the emphasis on learning opportunities for all. One way to do this is to be intentional about the venues where you address social issues. Programming can be a more beneficial way to address polarizing topics than exhibitions, for instance, as Victoria Barnett, one of the world’s preeminent scholars of religion and the Holocaust, explained to us. Programming allows you to ensure the privacy of the event—something that is fundamental in hosting difficult conversations across difference. People need privacy to work out controversial ideas and challenge their own thinking.
In addition to countering disinformation with truth, you should also have a strategy for not engaging in it as an organization. If your museum uses social media, you should have clear guidelines for the people who manage it on how to avoid spreading disinformation. And you should also have guidance for all staff on what news sources will be considered reliable when discussing current events that affect the museum. There are numerous resources online, but make sure to vet them, too. DEAI practitioner Deanna Troust recommends Truth in Common and the News Literacy Project.
The one thing that Americans of any political persuasion should be able to agree on is the defense of the basic structures of democracy.
Though it may not always feel like it, we would counsel you to think of Americans of all parties as valuing democracy equally. American values allow us to vote any which way we want, but if you want to take away the right to vote, then we have a problem. Defending this foundational belief can be a powerful way to reinforce your DEAI efforts, as the values of inclusion and equity are at the core of democratic process.
Museums can and should be unequivocal that they believe in and support democracy and democratically elected government. You might consider stating this clearly in external-facing documents so that no visitor, philanthropic donor, or board member is surprised you would take that stand, or that there may be consequences for contesting it.
As far as what those consequences are, it’s a good idea to start a conversation with your board now, so you can find consensus on when to take action and what accountability should look like.
C.S. Lewis wrote that “courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Maya Angelou seemed to agree when she said, “I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.”
We are not suggesting that embodying the 4 Ds is simple or easy. Far from it. And museum leaders are in a precarious position, having to rethink how to balance the expectations of staff, visitors, donors, and community partners. There is no underestimating the high level of political astuteness and situational awareness that acting on moral conviction requires.
However, this is a time in our country’s history when bold, decisive, courageous leaders are needed, and in this polarized world, we believe museums are uniquely positioned to use their power to connect, repair, and heal the communities they serve.
Reposted from Security Management Magazine
Are you satisfied with your job? Do you think pay is the main thing that matters to employees? Suspect that those around you are falling into quiet quitting trends and general apathy? Well, surprise! According to a new Washington Post-Ipsos poll of workers, eight in 10 are satisfied with their jobs, even though six in 10 say work is stressful. And despite many trend pieces that argue the contrary, most of the 1,148 workers the poll surveyed try to excel at work.
Let’s break it down: You’ve probably heard a plethora of news about the Great Resignation of 2021, quiet quitting, demands for flexible work and better pay, calls for mentorship and career advancement opportunities, and challenges to longstanding corporate office-based culture. But this poll found that nearly 80 percent of workers say they are satisfied with their jobs, 82 percent said their primary job was enjoyable, and 62 percent say they have a good work–life balance.
Stress levels vary by demographic. Gen Z workers (those younger than 26 years of age) were the least likely to say their jobs are stressful (42 percent) compared to 61 percent of those 27 to 34 years old, 67 percent of those 35 to 49 years old, and 66 percent of those 50 to 64 years old.
Managers are more likely to say their work is stressful than non-managers (74 percent vs. 56 percent). Women say their jobs are more stressful than men (65 percent vs. 58 percent).
What makes work less stressful? First of all, movement. Workers vastly preferred jobs where they are actively moving over stationary, desk-bound jobs. About six in 10 workers prefer jobs where it is clear how to accomplish day-to-day tasks over one where they must be creative to achieve results, the poll found.
No matter how they need to reach results, nearly two-thirds of poll respondents say they work “enough to excel at their jobs and advance” in their careers; 33 percent report that they are “working enough to do my job well, but not doing more than I am paid for,” and 4 percent are “working just enough to keep my job.”
This dedication hasn’t completely undercut the turnover challenges many workplaces have faced in the past three years. The Post-Ipsos poll found that many factors color a worker’s feelings about a job, including health insurance, vacation time, co-worker friendliness, opportunities for advancement, and the social impact of the work. But pay is still the top factor, with 45 percent of workers ranking it as the most important. One in three workers polled said they had changed jobs since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent of those workers changed roles for better pay.
Having a good boss or manager comes in second, though, with 14 percent of workers ranking it as the most important and more than 80 percent deeming it extremely or very important.
Meanwhile, remote work hasn’t completely eroded social ties in the workplace. More than half of workers said they have “close friendships” at work. Working remotely may lead to looser ties, though—there was about a 10 percent difference in close friendships between hybrid and fully onsite workers vs. fully remote workers.
But the reduction in at-work friendships doesn’t seem to be deterring remote workers. The poll found that around 40 percent of those surveyed say their jobs can be done from home, and among those, 40 percent are fully remote, 38 percent are hybrid, and 22 percent work fully from an office or other workplace. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Postreported, 60 percent of these employees worked on-site fulltime. Of those working fully remotely, 70 percent expect to keep it up during the next decade. Of in-office workers, 61 percent said they expect to be hybrid workers in 10 years.
Among remote-capable employees, about 7 in 10 said they would choose to work from home all or most of the time. Only 6 percent would opt to work remotely “rarely or never.”
What’s driving the push for more and sustained remote work? Skipping the commute tops the list, followed by easier childcare and easier focus. Most remote workers said the arrangement has made it easier to balance work and personal time. Even though remote work is valued, 65 percent of remote-capable workers said they would prefer a job that pays more but requires regular time in the office to a remote job that pays less.
Seldom in the history of art have so many masterpieces been vandalized in so little time. In October, major paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Vermeer were targeted by environmentalist activists as part of a concerted push to raise awareness of the climate emergency and to stop new fossil-fuel projects.
Cans of tomato soup were splattered over Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery by a pair of activists from the Just Stop Oil movement (while a third captured the act on video). “What is worth more, art or life?” shouted one protester, Phoebe Plummer, 21, as visitors gasped and called for security. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
Later that month, a painting in Monet’s “Grainstacks” series was smeared with mashed potatoes at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam, Germany. And at a museum in The Hague, a man glued his head to Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” while another man, his hand glued to the wall, poured a thick red liquid over him. None of the paintings involved were damaged.
The acts of eco-vandalism seemed aimed at pressuring world leaders to take radical action at the United Nations climate summit the following month. Videos of the attacks were seen by millions of people around the world, including, no doubt, the leaders. Yet the attacks also upset many members of the public concerned about art damage, and led the directors of top world museums to issue a stern statement, raising the question of whether art actually is an effective vehicle for protest.
The topic of art and protest was discussed by a panel at last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference in Florence, Italy, created by the Democracy & Culture Foundation in concert with New York Times journalists.
One of the speakers at the conference was Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, a U.K.-based international protest group that brought parts of central London to a standstill in 2019. She defended the acts of vandalism against artworks, including Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” saying the art was not harmed and the protests drew public attention in a way that was necessary, given the seriousness of the issue.
“It’s not going in a good direction, folks,” she said during the panel that also included Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “Some soup on some glass on the front of a painting is the very least that people could be doing to draw attention, to bring alarm.”
Vandalism against art is nothing new. In March 1914, a militant suffragist named Mary Richardson, furious at the arrest of a fellow activist, walked into the National Gallery in London with a meat cleaver and slashed Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus” (1647-51), leaving a half-dozen cuts in the canvas.
In the decades that followed, there were intermittent attacks on other major works, including Michelangelo’s “Pieta’” (1499) at St Peter’s Basilica, which received several hammer blows in 1972 from a man claiming to be the resurrected Christ, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa, which suffered several attacks, including having acid and a rock thrown at it before it was permanently shielded by bulletproof glass.
The masterminds of those attacks were mainly seeking to draw attention to themselves, whereas their present-day counterparts seek to draw attention to the climate emergency.
To environmentalists, the cause is worthy of being loudly and clearly heard.
In a telephone interview before the Florence conference, Ms. Farrell said that for a long time, there was little public awareness of the sheer urgency of the climate crisis. So it was normal to sound the alarm in a big way.
“When people are about to get hit by a train and they don’t realize it, you don’t invite them in for a meeting,” Ms. Farrell said.
Referring to the recent spate of art attacks, she said throwing soup at one of the world’s most famous paintings “makes everybody pay attention,” and noted that no damage had been done to the works. The art attacks were “extremely useful,” she added, because once the initial shock dissipated, people actually gave the climate crisis some thought. And previous Just Stop Oil actions — such as occupying gas and oil terminals, and smashing gas station pumps — had received almost no media coverage.
Museum managers were not amused. The leaders of 92 major cultural institutions — including the Louvre, the British Museum, the Guggenheim and the Mauritshuis (the small museum in The Hague)— said in a statement in November that they were “deeply shaken” by the actions of the eco-activists, who “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage.”
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris — whose president was among the signatories — almost became the target of yet another act of vandalism in October when a woman attempted to throw a liquid at a 19th-century painting. She was stopped, said Pierre Emmanuel Lecerf, the museum’s general administrator.
“We were prepared for the possibility of an intervention, because of the escalation of such interventions at the time, so we had tighter security measures put in place,” he said in an interview.
The museum was not so lucky in 2007 when someone believed to be among a group of drunken intruders punched and damaged the Monet painting “Le Pont d’Argenteuil” (1874). The painting has since been restored.
These days, said Mr. Lecerf, the vast majority of the Musée d’Orsay’s paintings are covered with glass, using technologies that make the protective sheet glare-free and nearly invisible to the visitor.
Nonetheless, “there is no such thing as zero risk,” he cautioned. “You can throw something at a glass-protected painting, and damage the historic frame, or the painting itself, if the liquid seeps through.”
Looking back on the repeated acts of vandalism that took place last year, Mr. Lecerf said he and his colleagues were “staggered to see art become the target of attack.”
“When you’re an environmental activist, you seek to preserve the natural environment. And when you’re a museum, your duty is to preserve the cultural heritage of humanity,” he said. “Our missions are, in reality, quite similar.”
How did art historians react to the recent wave of eco-vandalism?
“I wasn’t as horrified as people might expect me to be,” said Sally Hickson, an art historian at the University of Guelph in Canada, who was interviewed by phone.
She described the activists’ campaign as effective, “because it certainly captured a lot of media attention.” But she also pointed out that, “all of the damage was reversible,” since the activists picked “works that they knew were covered by glass.”
Yet there was no obvious link between the environmentalist cause and the paintings, she said. The activists “had to provide the dialogue and the narrative” to connect their actions to climate change, “because one thing has nothing to do with the other,” she said.
Ms. Hickson said that the worrying aspect of the recent art attacks was that museums entrusted with the care and preservation of some of the greatest masterpieces of art history had been breached and violated — and were probably going to seriously question the degree of access they would grant the general public going forward.
“How many people do you let in? How close do you let them get to things?” she said. “It must be costing museums a ton in terms of increased security.” Institutions could decide to “make things less accessible to people,” she added.
The built world is heavily reliant on the stability and predictability of the climate. From agriculture to infrastructure planning, understanding factors such as where it will rain, how much it will rain, and when it will rain is critical to the functioning of our societies. But climate change is now increasingly disrupting such norms.
According to a 2020 study conducted by McKinsey, “the economic cost of climate-induced hazards is expected to rise dramatically over the next several decades. The research indicates that the value at stake could increase from roughly 2 percent of global GDP to more than 4 percent by 2050.”
The insurance industry has long been a barometer of risk and is now being forced to re-evaluate its business models and respond to the new normal. In the face of rising costs, some insurers are passing on the burden to policyholders while others are abandoning specific geographic areas that have become too risky to insure. This shift in the insurance landscape is a strong indicator that the impacts of climate change are not merely a future threat—it’s a current danger and needs to be fully factored into the business resilience equation.
While catastrophic natural disasters have direct and overt impacts, such events often trigger a cascade of second or third order impacts which manifest in ways that are hard to predict. For example, extreme weather events—including hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and prolonged droughts—have the potential to disrupt food and water supplies and other critical supply chains. In turn, these impacts could exacerbate the conditions for civil instability or lead to cross-border conflict over vital resources.
As a security risk professional, you may still doubt the relevance of climate change to your role, but it’s important to understand that climate threats are not limited to the natural world and can propagate consequences for security stability at multiple levels—from geopolitics and national security down to security at operational levels. With climate change, everything is connected.
Developments in the Arctic are a clear and early demonstration of how climate change can shape geopolitical relations. Arctic warming is having a diminishing effect upon sea ice which has begun to open access to new resources and shipping routes, leading to a scramble among nations and industry players to secure a foothold in the area. This race for control has sparked tensions among the Arctic states, including Russia, Canada, and the United States, as well as non-Arctic nations like China, which are looking to exert their influence in the region. With the competition intensifying, the risk of military escalation in the Arctic is also rising.
The implications of climate change on national security are multifaceted and far-reaching. One of the primary concerns is the resilience of defense installations and infrastructure in the face of increasingly severe weather events. A notable example of this occurred in 2018, when Hurricane Michael hit Florida and caused more than $1 billion in damage to F-22 Raptor stealth fighters at Tyndall Air Force Base. Similarly, the United States Navy at Naval Station Norfolk, a strategic military facility in Virginia, is actively working to address the impact of sea level rise, including tidal flooding, increased storm surge, and land loss.
Governments worldwide are also increasingly calling upon military support to deal with civil emergencies arising from the impacts of climate change. Such commitments over the longer term could disrupt overseas force rotations and divert militaries from achieving their principal deterrent and warfighting objectives.
It has been shown that climate has the potential to exacerbate conditions that lead to civil instability or armed conflict. This has been seen in recent history, such as in the case of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, where a drought-induced wheat shortage contributed to significant economic and social unrest, ultimately leading to a major civil uprising. Additionally, in Syria, a prolonged period of drought that resulted in the collapse of the agriculture sector, economic failure, and displacement of population has been documented as a key factor in the onset of the civil war in 2011. Extreme climatic events can act as a catalyst for conflict.
Recent studies have established a correlation between climate change and terrorism. One such study conducted at the University of Maryland examined the potential indirect effects of climate change on terrorism. The research found that climate change serves as a destabilizing factor, providing an ideal environment for extremist organizations to thrive. Additionally, the study determined that climate change can exacerbate the underlying conditions that contribute to the development of terrorism, such as the "root causes" of terrorism.
Root causes of terrorism have historically included economic conditions such as poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality. But climate change-triggered factors can create or worsen conditions that are conducive for both radicalization and exploitation. For example, the terrorist organization Islamic State exploited water shortages in Iraq and took control of dams and other water infrastructure to impose its will on communities. Furthermore, climate change can multiply the drivers of radicalization that facilitate the emergence of terrorism, including push, pull, and personal factors. Lastly, the study found that climate change can exacerbate the number of enabling factors that can lead to an increase in political violence—including acts of terrorism—such as political instability.
A similar study by major European thinktank Adelphi in collaboration with the German Foreign Office found numerous examples where climate change had contributed to conditions for terrorism, namely Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, Islamic State in Syria, and organized crime groups in Guatemala.
In climate change, there are always vicious cycles. For instance, in the Arctic, the melting of sea ice has a compounding effect—the exposed water absorbs more heat, leading to further melting. Guatemala is seeing a similar vicious cycle. Criminal groups are profiting from illegal mining and the deforestation of rainforests. These activities release large amounts of greenhouse gases and destroy natural carbon sinks that help regulate the climate. Guatemala is already vulnerable to natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes, but the criminal groups’ actions make it worse. Additionally, their activities fuel violence, human rights violations, and insecurity, which displace vulnerable populations. The very conditions that enable these criminal enterprises to thrive are being perpetuated by their own actions, in a perverse and self-defeating cycle that proves disastrous for people and cultures in Guatemala and nearby countries.
As average temperatures continue to break records, research has shown a correlation between rising temperatures and increased crime rates. Studies have demonstrated that violent crimes such as homicides, sex offenses, and assaults are more likely to occur during periods of high temperatures.
One study conducted in seven American cities found that for every 5-degree Celsius (9-degree Fahrenheit) increase in daily mean temperature between 2007 and 2017, there was a 4.5 percent increase in reported sex offenses within the subsequent eight days. Moreover, increased heat levels don’t just affect physical crime rates—according to a study by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, online hate speech on Twitter was 22 percent higher on extremely hot days than on milder weather days, which saw the lowest levels of online hate speech.
Given the correlation between high temperatures and crime, it is likely that this trend will continue and potentially worsen in the future because of climate change.
Unlike any instance of social activism in the past, climate change has the demonstrated power to mobilise and unite people across demographics and global geography.
To date, most contemporary climate action groups profess a commitment to non-violent civil disobedience; however, the possibility of changing tactics and threat escalation exists, particularly as climate activism becomes exacerbated by a perceived slow or disingenuous response by corporations and governments. Moreover, the sheer number of activists involved in climate action is unprecedented (when compared to other protest issues over the last four decades). The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace maintains a Climate Protest Tracker that identifies episodes of mass activism related to climate policy around the world. The tracker shows that there were dozens of major climate protests in 150 countries in 2022. On a probabilistic basis, this raises the likelihood of either unstable individuals or extremist groups using violence under the guise of climate activism.
A recent example of an escalation in activist tactics is that of the Guacamaya hacking group who conducted a string of cyberattacks against mining and oil companies with operations in Latin America in 2022. These attacks disrupted operations, exposed sensitive data, and damaged reputations. For many, this campaign flew under the radar, but it serves as an indicator of the threat that activists may pose should they resort to more sophisticated and hostile forms of activism in the future—beyond the attention-grabbing stunts of today.
Initiatives by the international community to reach carbon reduction targets create unique risks in themselves. For example, the energy transition will require a vast amount of critical minerals such as copper, which is essential for low-carbon technologies like solar photovoltaic plants, wind farms, and electric vehicles.
Mining companies that are at the downstream end of energy transition face several risks associated with extracting copper and other energy transition metals. These include establishing new operations in remote, unfamiliar, and potentially high-risk settings; environmental risks such as land disturbance, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions; social risks such as conflicts with local communities, human rights violations, and cultural heritage impacts; and governance risks such as regulatory uncertainty, corruption, and geopolitical instability.
Mining companies will need to manage all these risks in concert with a massive uptick in operations and changing global footprint, all the while maintaining compliance with strict environment and social governance requirements. Undoubtedly, there will be knock-on impacts to contractors and industries that support the extractive industries.
As the international community tackles the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the parallel strategy is climate adaptation. For organizations, this entails embedding resilience to ensure continuity of operations despite escalated climate events.
The core climate change risks are principally extreme temperature variations and sea level rise, which cause second and third-order impacts such as wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, heatwaves, and periods of cold (e.g., polar vortexes).
The following are some factors to consider when planning to harden an organization against climate change:
Risk assessment. In conducting a climate change risk assessment, a good place to start is to analyze an organization's spatial footprint of physical assets in light of present and anticipated climate conditions. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the potential risks, a top-down approach can be adopted by using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Interactive Atlas Tool to map predicted temperature increments in distinct regions against a catalog of geolocated company assets.
For a more detailed examination, flood mapping software can be employed to evaluate the suitability of current or planned asset locations. This approach will provide a granular view of the assets and their vulnerability to flooding caused by rising sea levels or increased precipitation, allowing organizations to make informed decisions and implement appropriate mitigation measures.
Utilities. Some power grids have layers of redundancy including the ability to source emergency power across borders, whereas other grids are running close to capacity on a normal day and are therefore more susceptible to failing due to demand spikes brought about by temperature variations. A recent example of this is the Texas power grid failure in February 2021 due to an extreme winter storm which resulted in a loss of power for more than 4.5 million homes. For some organizations, grid reliability may be a factor selecting a new office or facility site. It may also drive investment in a backup power solution.
Business continuity planning. Business continuity plans (BCP) are a must-have for medium and large organizations. These plans should include contingencies for location-specific climate risks and be flexible enough to handle unforeseen events. It’s important to remember that just because something hasn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. To ensure effectiveness, BCPs need to be regularly tested through team training, war gaming scenarios, and exercising.
The pandemic forced many office-based businesses to transition to work from home (WFH), and this has made organizations more resilient through the creation of a distributed workforce. With access to the office no longer being a single point of failure, it’s important that an organization’s WFH capability be considered as an important business continuity strategy and be maintained accordingly.
As climate change continues to intensify, organizations must anticipate a rise in the frequency and severity of natural disasters such as storms, floods, and wildfires. In turn, this places increased demands on business resilience resources, such as crisis management, business continuity, and security teams. To proactively manage these demands, organizations should conduct annual reviews of their resources rather than waiting for negative lessons to be learned.
By conducting regular reviews, organizations can ensure that they have the necessary resources and protocols in place to respond quickly and effectively to any potential crises. This forward planning approach can help to mitigate the impact of any future disasters, safeguard business operations, and protect the safety of employees and customers.
Compared to other areas of museum work, guest services (or visitor services, as it’s sometimes known) often gets overlooked for the impact it has on community-building. This may be because, rather than any one big initiative, the work of guest services staff is incremental, building relationships over time. The start of an enduring relationship can look as simple as greeting a member by their name when they come in or finding a moment of connection in a conversation with a guest.
As a guest services manager at a small art and history museum, I work with my team to ensure our interactions are not transactional in nature, but are used as an opportunity for connection. Did something in particular bring a guest in? Are they visiting for the first time? Taking the extra step of asking questions like these can accomplish a lot. This human-centered approach can forge deep relationships that reverberate in the larger community, making the museum a place people want to return to, knowing they will be welcomed and remembered.
But how do you make this shift from transactional to relational interactions? Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.
When engaging in conversation with guests, slow down and really listen to what they are saying. Ask intentional questions on both ends of the visitor journey—those that go beyond simple yes/no responses. Instead of “Are you here to visit?” for instance, ask “What brought you in?” And before launching into a rundown of exhibitions and events to see, try asking, “Is there a particular exhibit that you are here to see?”
This way, instead of making guests feel they are one of a million people passing through, you show them they are being seen and heard. The act of listening is one of the most hospitable things one can do for another person. As well, deep listening can help guests orient themselves and shape the visitor journey by aligning their interests to enhance their experience. It can be a way to provide information, and for smaller organizations, it can become a starting point for relationship-building.
Instead of gendered language, like calling someone “sir” or a group of people “ladies,” greet guests with neutral terms, such as “hello there” or “welcome folks.” When trying to identify someone to another person, refer to them by what they are wearing, such as “that person in the blue sweater,” instead of their presumed gender. This helps avoid inadvertently misgendering guests, which can make them feel disrespected and unwelcome.
It is also important to mind your language around children visiting with adults. You should not assume that the adults are always their parents, so phrase questions like “Are you with an adult?”
Chances are that guests will have opinions on their visit, which you may be able to use to elevate the experience for future guests. Maybe there needs to be more lighting in a particular part of the gallery, or the text display is too small in one of the exhibits, for example. Making a habit of asking for these reactions, and creating a mechanism for sharing them with the relevant staff to consider, can be a helpful way to identify changes that would make your museum more human-centered. For example, at our institution one of the repeat questions recently has been when the hands-on component we took out during COVID is coming back, so in response we have added some low-stakes activities in our atrium and first-floor gallery.
Even if you can’t always act on the feedback you get, the act of asking can help the guest feel appreciated and may encourage them to dive deeper into the space through coming back for an event, volunteering, or becoming a member. Not everyone will feel comfortable to (or want to) share their experience, so it’s important to respect that and try to read guest’s wishes as they exit. Even if they do not seem to want to engage in formal conversation about their experience, a simple “thanks for visiting” can still be a powerful way of making them feel seen.
In the customer service industry, welcoming hospitality is the formal term used to describe the warm glow you feel when you know you are being taken care of by someone willing to go above and beyond. This quality is not always associated with cultural institutions as much as other fields, but what if it were the norm? Think of the rave reviews that could come in. “Front-line staff was amazing, we enjoyed our visit, and look forward to returning.” While we typically look for positive feedback on exhibitions and programs, this quality of service can be just as important in creating a satisfying visit and encouraging repeat visits. Sometimes it is the simplest gestures that can have a positive impact on creating a welcoming environment for all guests.
Here are some immediate ways your guest services staff can start using welcoming hospitality principles:
Guest services teams are often the eyes and ears of the cultural space where they work. They relay to other teams if something is unclear in an exhibit, or if something needs to be fixed before opening. In this sense, they have the ability to help design and develop spaces that are human-centered. They know which audiences visit, what brings them back, and what they would like to see more of.
This human-centered approach can also create a ripple effect throughout the organization, becoming a powerful model for other departments. Think about how some of the same principles might benefit team meetings and work with outside collaborators, for instance. As cultural institutions are hoping to attract new audiences, it is important not to underestimate the potential a simple welcome can have. It can make your museum a place people want to return to, because they feel they belong every time they walk through the doors.
Reposted from The Independent
Two climate change protesters have clashed with museum security guards after they jumped the barrier to a dinosaur display.
Footage shows Just Stop Oil (JSO) members, who the group has named as Daniel Knorr, 21, and Victoria Lindsell, 67, entering the Dippy the Diplodocus exhibit at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry before being arrested.
A video posted by JSO follows the pair climb over a low metal barrier before being tackled to the ground by staff in high-vis jackets, and later being led away in handcuffs by West Midlands Police (WMP) officers.
One staff member is shown seizing Mr Knorr’s rucksack, while another tackles Ms Lindsell and shouts: “Stop it, stop it now. Do you understand?”
The demonstrators both remove jumpers to reveal white “Just Stop Oil” t-shirts before they are removed.
WMP confirmed that two people were arrested in the museum at around 10am on Monday on suspicion of conspiracy to cause criminal damage.
The force added that “two large bags of dry paint were also seized by officers” and that “protest liaison officers” are still at the scene to “keep people safe and limit disruption to a minimum”.
Ms Lindsell, an English language teacher from Leamington, Warwickshire, said she felt “forced” to take part in the “civil resistance” action because “nothing else has moved our genocidal Government to act for the welfare of all”.
In a statement issued by JSO, she said: “Day after day, we are alerted to the impact of rising carbon emissions, but this dinosaur government crashes on with incentivising yet more fossil fuel extraction, whilst pocketing millions from the industries leading us to extinction.”
Knorr, a student from Oxford, also said he felt he had “no choice” but to take part in the stunt because “we’re barrelling towards suffering, mass death and the annihilation of our species”.
In a statement, he said: “I cannot and will not commit myself to a future of powerlessly watching these horrors unfold. The dinosaurs had no choice – we do.
“Humanity is at risk, as is everything we know and love- our historical artefacts, our art, our heritage.
“Cultural institutions have failed to admit the truth and failed to address the urgency of action.
“It is immoral for institutions to stand by and watch whilst our society faces inevitable collapse.
“We call on everyone involved in arts, heritage and culture to join us in civil resistance.”
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