Reading this article about a robbery early this morning at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam has got me thinking: how does a museum carry on after being the victim of such a terrible crime? You need to decide not only how to handle the crime, but also how to communicate about it.
Communication is key
As a curator or director, you’re removed from direct contact with the public – through a veil of press releases and official statements, you can pick and choose which aspects of your recovery are distributed by the media.
But as a docent, you’re thrust into the spotlight of the scandal. Facing wave after wave of museum-goers, only made more thirsty by the standard day of closure following the theft, how do you deal with the questions? Chances are, you don’t even know the answers. And even if you do, it’s doubtful that the administration wants you letting everyone and their brother know that someone left the employee entrance unlocked and twelve hours later you were a few Picassos lighter.
Great balls of fire
Disasters hit museums in any number of ways, whether they be manmade or natural. During my time as a volunteer at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (a fantastic private collection if you’re looking for something off the Smithsonian-beaten-track and don’t mind paying for it), there was a minor fire in one of the buildings. It happened during renovation work, and the Phillips handled the situation masterfully: the staff were quick to rescue works, the next special exhibition was installed on time, and they waived the admission fee for the rest of the month. Granted, half of the museum was closed to visitors, but you could still see, among other works, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the feather in the Phillips’ cap.
The fire went as well as a fire could go in an art gallery, but reporting to volunteer the day after the disaster, I found myself a little out of my depths. Having gotten a quick debriefing from the volunteer coordinator on the details of the fire, I was told not to say too much and just reinforce the fact that a) nothing was damaged and b) admission was free. Sitting at my little wooden table where I was accustomed to pointing people to the loo and giving out restaurant recommendations, I faced one breathless patron after another. Unable to answer any of their salacious questions (which I would have liked to know the answers to, as well), I could see the disappointment on their faces.
For the Kunsthal, today marks a pivot point full of potential. They can approach the situation in any number of ways, but I hope they do so with finesse and honesty. Preparing their employees and volunteers for the onslaught of difficult questions is the first step. The second, and far more important, step is being completely open about the recovery process. Priceless works of art are stolen every day, and by denying that the damage is as extensive as it is, or covering up damages, museums are denying the significance of their victimization.
The largest property theft in U.S. history is the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft of 1990, and yet it is still unsolved. Museums in the Mediterranean are being assailed with minor thefts as the economic crisis worsens, work taken by Nazis continues to be fought over, and galleries continue to display illegally obtained artifacts.
In the 21st century, I would hope that the Kunsthal takes this opportunity to not only rally public support for the return of these particular artworks, but also to start a conversation about the state of stolen art around the world today. By telling their employees to guide visitors away from tricky questions about the crime, the museum administration would essentially be telling their employees to maintain the view that stolen art is not a big deal.
Art elucidates, challenges, denies, rejects, speaks, cries, and completes us. When a work of art is stolen, it affects all of us, not just the museum or its employees. It’s time for stolen art to move from the culture section to the front page.
Apologies for this post being quite rambly, it’s basically all of my reactions to the article in a big ol’ chunk of text. Writing this has really struck a chord in me – definitely look out for more thoughts on how museums respond to thefts like this one, as well as the perception of stolen art in the law, politics, and media.