7 Museum Disasters to Avoid

7 Works of Art Accidentally Smashed, Ripped, and Punched by Museum Visitors

Much of the artwork we see in museums today is damaged in some way. We're accustomed to seeing fragments of Greek and Roman art, medieval statues with missing noses and limbs and Renaissance paintings sliced and separated into multiple works of art. But what happens when a work of art on display inside a museum gets damaged? Every work of art you see in a museum is heavily insured because... stuff happens.​

While conservation is both an art and a science that requires many years of extensive training, a slow, steady hand is still the most important tool. In the past, conservators were really restorers who would rebuild works of art in an attempt to replace the pieces of the art that were damaged. Over time it was felt that this often further obscured the work of art and the focus became to stabilize the work of art and conserve whatever was left. Science continues to be a more robust partner to conservators, allowing them to look underneath paintings and inside sculptures as well as understand how and from what they are made.

While it might be more beneficial for the art itself to be sealed behind glass inside a museum, it would make for a very boring visitor experience. The incredible access we have to works of art in museums relies on a degree of good faith as well as the careful attention of museum security guards. Still, big museums like The Met have conservation specialists who monitor the objects in the collection for humidity, dirt, exposure to light, etc.

So what happens when someone trips on a shoelace, mindlessly wields a selfie stick or even purposefully sets out to damage a work of art? After the shock and horror wear off, conservators evaluate the situation and get to work for however long it takes. Here's a list of 7 museum disasters, most of which have happy endings.

  • 01 of 07
    Townley Venus
    The British Museum

    In October 2016, while prepping for an event inside the British Museum, a waiter knelt down for a moment below a priceless marble Roman sculpture of Venus. When he stood up quickly, his head hit Venus's hand and her marble thumb crashed to the floor.  Conservators were able to reattach the thumb quickly as it had been previously knocked off by a museum visitor in 2012. 

    Known as the "Townley Venus", the sculpture was excavated in 1775 from the​ port town of Ostia near Rome. It was purchased by English collector Charles Townley and then sold to the British Museum in 1805. It is a Roman copy of a Greek original that dates back to the 4th Century BC.

    The British Museum reassured the public that they would retrain all catering staff and this outside firm which had been contracted for the event would no longer be working for the museum. No word on the person responsible for the blunder.

  • 02 of 07
    Tullio Lombardo's "Adam"
    Metropolitan Museum of Art

    The museum had just closed when the gallery guards heard a crashing sound in the courtyard just outside the Thomas Watson library on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Renaissance sculpture of Adam by Venetian artist Tullio Lombardo had crashed to the ground and broken into hundreds of pieces. The sculpture's head had broken off completely and there were skid marks on its torso. The culprit? The plywood stand ​that the 6'3" sculpture stood on had buckled.

    The pieces were gathered together and brought to the lab where the museum initially estimated it would take at least 2 years of work to restore the broken statue. It ultimately required 12 years before the sculpture was restored to a state very close to how it looked before the accident and was able to be placed on view once again.

    The conservation of Adam marked a new era in the museum world which is all about dropping the veil between the exhibition space and what happens behind-the-scenes. When Adam was finally ready to go back on view, the event was celebrated with an exhibition that documented the entire process, from the CT scans and laser mapping tool that were used to the painstaking process undertaken by the hands of three different conservators. The Met also displayed a remarkable sense of humor in the title of their video about the conservation, "After the Fall".

  • 03 of 07
    The Annunciation by Giovanni d'Ambrogio

    Inside Florence, Italy's Museo del'Opera del Duomo is a 15th-century sculpture of the Virgin Mary receiving the news from the Archangel Gabriel that she will bear the Christ child. Shocked by this heavenly visitor, her hand is held up as though she is trying to hold back the events tumbling toward her. The marble hand looked so real that a 55-year old Missouri man visiting the museum couldn't resist leaning in and giving Mary a high-five. Unfortunately, it caused her pinky finger to break off and fall to the ground.

    Though the museum's curators were enraged and threatened to impose a hefty fine, the mishap was not quite as bad as it seems as the finger was already a replacement for the lost original. Still, it's rarely a good idea to abide by the universal "no touching" museum policy and avoiding high fiving the art.

  • 04 of 07

    Falling for Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

    "The Actor" by Pablo Picasso
    Metropolitan Museum of Art

    During an adult education class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a woman tripped and fell into a large painting by Pablo Picasso causing a 6-inch long tear in the work of art previously valued at $130 million. The work was quickly ushered to The Met's conservation labs where conservators were relieved to see the tear was in a corner of the painting and did not disrupt the composition.

    They were able to repair the tear and have the painting ready for display in the Picasso exhibition that was slated for the spring of 2011. Crisis averted. But now that the world knows the work had been damaged and repaired, would it still be as valuable? 

    When damage to a work of art comes in the form of a historic event, the resulting scar can sometimes make the work more valuable. But in the case of a clumsy museum visitor (who was unharmed) the story is less compelling. Fortunately, The Met has no plans to sell the painting. But in the case of art collector and Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn who accidentally elbowed a Picasso painting he was attempting to sell, restoration work had to take place and the price re-negotiated. 

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07
    Fitzwilliam Museum
    Fitzwilliam Museum

    Shoelaces were to blame at the Fitzwilliam Museum of Art when a visitor fell forward on a staircase and broke three Qing Dynasty vases worth $700,000 that were also uninsured. A hundred shards of ceramic went flying though the visitor was unscathed. 

    The incident became so famous that the Fitzwilliam now has a special FAQ page about it and it was even reenacted as a piece of performance art by Thomas Demand at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.

  • 06 of 07
    Paolo Porpora's Still Life of Flowers
    Public Domain

     A 12-year old Taiwanese boy was walking through a museum exhibition, holding a drink (already a big no-no) when the unthinkable happened. He tripped and fell into a Baroque painting valued at $1.5 million dollars, essentially punching a hole through the canvas's bottom right corner. The entire slapstick scene was caught on video.

    Ultimately the frightened boy or his family were not asked to pay a fine. The work which conservators said was already quite fragile was successfully fixed.

  • 07 of 07
    Copy of Barberini Faun
    Public domain

    At the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, it seems a student who attempted to take a selfie snapped off the leg of a plaster cast of the Barberini Faun. Though the work is a copy and not as valuable as an original work of art, the university staff was still shocked to see the broken work when they arrived at work the following morning. Nobody has claimed responsibility for it and the security cameras didn't capture the act, but witnesses pin it on a male foreign visitor.