Museums are increasingly being targeted by climate change protesters.
The focus is on Just Stop Oil, a group of environmental activists responsible for five recent demonstrations at UK museums and who have been arrested multiple times for their activities.
In June, two activists taped themselves to Horatio McCulloch’s painting My heart is in the Highlands (1860), in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.
Also in June, two other activists glued themselves to Vincent van Gogh’s frame Peach trees in bloom (1889) in the Courtauld Gallery, London.
“I’m sorry everyone, we don’t want to do that. We’re stuck here on this painting, this beautiful painting, because we fear for our future,” said Louis McKechnie, 21, one of the protesters for Just Stop Oil, which is funded by the US philanthropic organization Climate Emergency Fund.
McKechnie also pointed out that climate change is threatening the landscape depicted in Van Gogh’s painting of the countryside near Arles in southern France.
In July, two activists taped themselves to the frame Tomson’s Aeolian Harp (1809), a painting by JMW Turner in the Manchester Art Gallery. In a statement on its website, Just Stop Oil said the piece shows areas of London that could be under water as early as 2030.
The following week saw two more protests by the non-violent group.
Two activists taped themselves to the frame hay cart (1821) by John Constable in the National Gallery, London. They also covered the work with a redesigned version depicting how continued use of oil will destroy the landscape. This version replaced the river with roads, filled the sky with airplanes and trees burning in wild fires.
Another demonstration took place at the Royal Academy in London, where five protesters taped their hands The last supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
“Leonardo da Vinci said that of all sciences, art is the queen of communication,” said one of the protesters. “In this day and age, communicating the truth of humanity’s experiences in these times of catastrophic climate change is needed more than ever.”
As part of their peaceful resistance, Just Stop Oil also spray-paints their logo on the floors or walls of the museum where a protest is taking place. The words ‘No New Oil’ were also spray-painted under the Renaissance masterpiece at the Royal Academy.
There have also been other recent cases of protesters from other groups across Europe infiltrating museums.
In May, a man smeared cakes over the glass panel protecting it at the Louvre Museum in Paris mona lisa by Leonardo. As he was led away, the protester yelled that he was taking action against “people who are destroying the planet”.
More recently, protesters from the group Ultima Generazione (Last Generation) in Italy laid their hands on Sandro Botticellis Primavera (meaning Spring) in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence while holding a sign that reads “Ultima Generazione, no gas, no carbon”.
“Can such a beautiful spring still be seen today?” Ultima Generazione said in a statement.
The painting was not damaged, the local press said, as the group had previously consulted with restoration experts. “Just as we defend our artistic heritage, we should be dedicated to caring for and protecting the planet we share with the rest of the world,” read a statement on the Italian group’s website.
While museums and galleries have long been at the center of political and social protests — like artist Nan Goldin’s protests against the Sackler family and America’s opioid crisis — this is the first time activists have latched onto artworks, potentially damaging priceless masterpieces.
However, minimal damage has been reported from museums and solvents can be used to dissolve the adhesive without affecting the paintings. After all, the longevity of artworks and the art world depends on the longevity of our planet, activists say.
Just Stop Oil’s main goal is to shake up the public, which they have successfully achieved. But while many applaud their efforts, others are unimpressed. For example, Nadine Dorries, the UK Culture Secretary, tweeted that the protesters were “attention seekers” who were “serving nothing but their own selfish ego”.
“It is unacceptable to disrupt access to our fabulous cultural assets and put them at risk of damage. These protesters should be removed and held accountable for the damage and disruption,” she said.
The debate only serves to advance the conversation, say activists, who are urging organizations to take immediate action against polluting materials.
“Directors of arts institutions should urge the government to halt all new oil and gas projects immediately,” McKechnie said in a statement on Just Stop Oil’s website. “Either we are in the resistance or we are complicit.”
It’s just one of many ways that activist groups around the world are now trying to get that message across.
Updated July 26, 2022 12:07 p.m