Te Papa artworks being damaged by visitors

Treasured works of art are being regularly damaged at Te Papa, mostly by visitors to the museum.

Members of the public have poked, cut holes in, kicked and stolen bits of art, and marked them with lipstick kisses, stickers, smiley faces and graffiti. Paintings, sculptures and installations have also been dropped, melted, torn, cracked, pierced, damaged by water and bent while in the care of museum staff. 

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act show 45 artworks have been damaged at the national museum over the course of a dozen years.

Water damaged five works, irrepararably in the case of Jacqueline Fraser's A Demure Portrait in 2008. The same year, an air conditioning unit failed and overflowed, damaging another work.

Several pieces were damaged in falls, one by slipping from velcro fixings, and another falling from its suspension cradle while being photographed. Three paintings were damaged on the same day in 2008 when a Ray Thorburn work fell from its storage rack, damaging two other paintings on the way down. 

"Gravity is a tough master. Things are going to fall or be dropped," Te Papa spokeswoman Kate Camp said.

She believed the level of damage caused by staff when moving, storing or displaying artworks was low, considering the amount of art the museum held and handled.

"It's only a handful a year. By international standards it's what you'd expect. The collection is in really safe hands."

However, Kapiti artist Gerda Leenards, whose acrylic painting Southern Night Light suffered minor water damage during an art store leak in 2013,  was shocked to learn of the incident for the first time from a reporter on Tuesday.

"I didn't know anything about it. It's not something you'd expect from a public art institution," she said.

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"How on earth they would have it damaged in storage is absolutely unbelievable, really. Having water damage, especially in a new building like that, I find it amazing."

Visitors caused the most damage, whether by accident or design. The late Ralph Hotere had two of his artworks damaged in 2013, both by Te Papa visitors. One stood on a paua shell that formed part of a floor installation, Pathway to the Sea/Aramoana, and broke it. Others left scratches and chips on rocks in the same installation, and scratches were left on his  Black Painting XIII from "Malady"

In 2006, a visitor cut a circular hole out of Sara Hughes' vinyl installation, Wish You Were Here

But most visitor damage was accidental, being caused by children running around, wheelchairs edging past artworks, or people backing into paintings or installations while taking selfies, Camp said.

"The modern gallery doesn't have rope barriers like the galleries of old. We want to encourage people to get up close and personal, and that does mean you take on a fair amount of risk."

 Emma Febvre-Richards, Massey University's acting head of Whiti o Rehua School of Art, said signs on walls telling visitors not to touch works did not deter some from interacting too closely with them.

"That's a debate about how you bring up your children really, and what's acceptable behaviour or not."

She thought damage to 45 works in 12 years seemed low. "They're incredibly careful with everything that they do. You can only protect artwork so far from the public."

Arts commentator Hamish Keith said some level of damage could not be avoided, but carelessness or lack of surveillance on museums' part was unacceptable, .

"If it's poor maintenance, I think that is bad. And there needs to be a human presence – you can't always monitor galleries by CCTV."

Visitor vandalism

  • Porirua artist Michael Parekowhai had a lipstick kiss left on the breast pocket of a lifesize mannequin in the installation Poorman, Beggarman, Thief  (Poorman) in 2011. A year later a leaf was broken off his work Constitution Hill Tree.
  • In 2013 a visitor drew a smiley face in pencil on the surface of a Trekka ute that formed part of Michael Stevenson's Venice Biennale entry This is the Trekka.
  • Three Peter Robinson works were damaged in late 2014.
  • Light fittings on Judy Darragh's plastic wall sculpture Pacific Madonna melted in 2004 and shorted the electrical circuit.
  • In the 2008 oversized plastic bird installation Oddooki, by Oh Seung Yul, one visitor kicked a bird so hard it split in two, while another had its bolt dislodged by a shove from visitors, and a screw was stolen.
  • Black crayon was used to graffiti two works on the same day in 2010:  Ronnie van Hout's garden shed installation A Loss Again, and Paul Cullen's industrial installation A Garden.

 - Stuff

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