The Dangerous Art of Selfies: Why Museums Should Take Note

By | July 24, 2017

Museum visitors snapping selfies are driving a spike in accidents that are putting exhibits at risk, according to Linda Sandell, senior vice president and chief underwriting officer with Huntington T. Block, a fine art insurance broker based in Washington D.C.

Common hazards when it comes to art, include fire, smoke, water damage, theft and vandalism, according to an Inland Marine Underwriters Association report, Museums: A Fine Art Primer. Slip and falls are the most common casualty claims museums sustain, according to Jamie Gregory, a Virginia-based underwriting manager for Markel International.

Now, selfies are creating new hazards for artwork on display, Sandell said.

Though Sandell hasn’t yet had any clients that have sustained a loss due to a visitor taking a selfie, she said both her clients and her agency are aware of losses that occurred in Europe.

It's created a new hazard for museums.

Sandell said museum clients are most concerned with two types of losses that have resulted from the use of cell phones in museums. One occurs when someone takes a selfie and backs into a sculpture or piece of art. Another type of loss can occur as visitors are just reading their cell phones, she said.

Either way, inattention can pose serious damage to valuable artwork.

“People just looking at their cell phones, whether they’re reading emails or texts can also lose that spatial perception and can walk into or trip on to an artwork, or they could potentially bump into others causing them to fall as well. It’s created a new hazard for museums,” Sandell said.

“There has been some serious damage to works of art,” Sandell said.

Earlier this year, a Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden visitor taking a selfie broke one of the glass pumpkins in Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room Installation “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins.” An article, by senior writer Brian Boucher, described the incident and other recent selfie gallery and museum mishaps. The exhibit, located in Washington D.C., opened only a few days before the incident happened. According to Boucher, the visitor lost his footing in the room filled with lit up gourds. One gourd was damaged and the exhibit was closed for a few days until the work was repaired.

Some selfie-related losses at European museums and galleries have garnered media attention because they happened to what are considered priceless works of art. Peter Gosselink, a fine arts specialist with Tokio Marine America, shared a selfie-related incident that happened in Europe, involving a statue of Dom Sebastiao, a 16th century Portuguese king.

“This sculpture was in a niche on the side of a church and someone climbed up to take a selfie with him and knocked the entire sculpture down,” Gosselink said.

Sandell said that though subrogation is an option, museums are reluctant to pursue a visitor for damages.

Most museums want to protect their insurance premium rate, Markel’s Gregory said, so they don’t report claims unless a signature piece is damaged or a loss is catastrophic.

Museums tend to be very cautious about their collections, Gosselink said. If there is a problem, museums will typically mitigate the issue right away. He’s aware of a number of museums banning selfie sticks, but thinks bans on cell phones are unlikely given the increasing use of mobile phones by museums in social media campaigns.

“Because museums are trying to move toward creating large spaces for people to gather, they are unlikely to ban cell phones,” Gregory said.

Many of Sandell’s clients have added additional security guards and docents to monitor museum visitors.

“Best practices … starts with the guards. The guards … are omnipresent all the time, always watching the public, what they’re doing,” Gosselink said.

At times, monitoring can be a difficult feat given the size of some crowds for certain exhibits, however.

“The risk increases as the size of the crowd increases, it makes it more and more difficult to monitor the situation,” Sandell said.

Museums want to balance accessibility with protecting the artwork, she said. Some have painted barrier lines, stanchions or raised platforms surrounding art or sculptures on display, but those can be a trip hazard for people not paying attention.

While few museums ban cameras, many — including New York’s Museum of Modern Art — do ban selfie sticks.

It is a difficult challenge for museums, Sandell said. “The challenge … is to limit the chance of something going wrong, but still allow the visitors the freedom to use their cell phones to take their pictures.”

About Denise Johnson

Denise Johnson is editor of More from Denise Johnson

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Latest Comments

  • July 31, 2017 at 9:48 am
    Next Time says:
    When I am in the Phila. Art Museum next, I'll take a selfie while standing next to A. Warhol's Brillo Box. Unlikely to cause it much damage.
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