NEW YORK • A man walked into the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in May. A video showed him admiring a sculptural wall clock on display, touching and pulling on it at least five times to see how it works.
Any observer could sense that something bad was about to happen. And it did.
The clock, which was made by artist James Borden, fell off and collapsed into pieces, footage showed. The unidentified visitor alerted a museum staff member and confessed, PennLive.com reported.
The director of the museum, Mr Noel Poirier, said the clock was sent to the artist to be repaired.
The episode is one in a recent series of disastrous encounters between humans and historical, natural and artistic exhibits that resulted in the art or displays being defaced, punctured or broken because of curiosity, clumsiness or carelessness.
Museum officials say that no plan to protect exhibits is foolproof and the recent episodes reflect the balance that museums seek between making their collections accessible to visitors and keeping them secure.
Mr Wayne LaBar, the president of the board of the National Association for Museum Exhibition, a professional network of the American Alliance of Museums, said common sense guides museums about what precautions to take, but even with the best systems, "every once in a while, people surprise us".
The problem is a global one: • Last month, two boys used a sharp object to outline a 5,000-year-old historical carving in Norway thought to be among the earliest depictions of skiing in the world, The Telegraph reported. They apparently intended to "fix" it to make it more visible, but permanently defaced it on the island of Tro.
Norwegian officials described the episode as a national tragedy. • Also last month, a 90-year-old woman visiting the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, Germany, used a pen to fill in the spaces in an artwork that depicted part of a crossword puzzle. Officials filed a criminal complaint about the unidentified woman for defacing the exhibit, Reading-work-piece, by avant- garde artist Arthur Koepcke.
A lawyer for the woman later said she did not damage the artwork - which included the phrase "insert words" - but merely completed it as the artist intended, German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported. • In June, a boy smashed a giant Lego sculpture of Nick from Zootopia at an expo in Ningbo, China. The artist had spent days piecing it together, reports said. • In May, two children at the Shanghai Museum of Glass were caught on camera touching a sculpture, Angel Is Waiting, by Shelly Xue, as their parents recorded them. When one child pulled the sculpture away from the wall, it fell and broke. A video of what happened went viral. • Last year, a 12-year-old boy in Taiwan tripped and punched a hole into an oil painting that was more than 300 years old and valued at US$1.5 million (S$2.02 million).
Mr Steve Keller, who has worked in museum security since 1979, said the phenomenon of visitors defacing exhibits has been going on for years. He linked their actions to mental instability, a lack of appreciation of art or sheer ignorance.
Mr Keller, the president of a consulting firm, Architect's Security Group, in Ormond Beach, Florida, worked at the Art Institute of Chicago. He recalled a visitor who wanted to take a photograph of himself with a sculpture in the foreground and a painting in the background. The visitor could not frame the photograph to his liking, so he wrapped his arms around the sculpture, which was the size of a person, and turned it on its pedestal to get the best angle.
On another occasion, a teenage boy lifted a girl so that she could put her lipstick marks on a portrait at the same museum. While it was not necessarily a malicious act, Mr Keller said, it was "kids being stupid".
Mr LaBar said the number of exhibits being damaged has not prompted any widespread discussion within the museum community because curators, designers and security experts wrestle with these issues all the time.
Mr Jim Coddington, the Agnes Gund chief conservator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said: "I think the first and most important point is that events like these are outliers. While they trend on social media, they do so because they are highly unusual."
The balance comes in not putting up barriers that distract from the exhibits. For instance, Mr LaBar said, visitors want to be able to appreciate the brush strokes of a painting without protective glass inhibiting the view. Forms of protection can be static, such as barriers that make you pause before going farther, or more active, such as posting security guards. Other systems sound an alarm if a visitor breaches an area.
Ms Beth Redmond-Jones, the senior director of public programmes at the San Diego Natural History Museum, said there had been a shift over the past 30 years with the growth of children's museums, which have led visitors to expect hands-on, interactive exhibits. She said research has shown that museum-goers have a better appreciation of their experience when they can make a personal connection.
She called the recent episodes "incredibly unfortunate". She said she hoped that parents and teachers instil in children a sense of museum etiquette, including the notion to look but not touch.
NEW YORK TIMES