Do Not Touch the Artworks

Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles

From 1938-9 and for a period of over fifteen months, a cleaner at The British Museum set to work on the Parthenon Marbles. Using cooper tools, the worker began to clean the marble figures and friezes, believing their bisque-like façade to be unwanted dirt. All manner of scandal, disciplinary action and juridical affairs ensued, with people fired, fingers pointed and accusations hurled. To this day, the account of the cleaning of the Elgin Marbles is still a major controversy, with Greek conservators finding new evidence to further prove the irreparable acts that took place in the 1930s.

In 2011, a similar story emerged – a story, that at first, I found both warming and laughable, despite the consequences. Martin Kippenburger’s When It Starts Dripping from the Ceiling is a large sculpture comprised of stacked, interlocking slats of wood. Positioned at the bottom of the structure and placed upon the floor is a basin-like pail containing a viscous pool of paint, made to look like rainwater. That year, When It Starts Dripping from the Ceiling was on loan for an exhibition at Ostwall Museum in Dortmund.

During the course of the exhibition, a cleaner mistook the realistic depiction of the paint for dirt and quietly took to work with a scouring pad. Crossing the institutional (and employment) contract that stipulates ‘Do Not Touch the Artwork’, the cleaner did the unthinkable; as may be expected, art galleries and cultural institutions internationally were in uproar. The media, meanwhile, found the situation laughable. “He thought it was art: the cleaner saw it as a challenge,” was the Guardian’s summation.

Cases like Kippenburger’s are smattered across art history: scandalous, yet often mistaken and accidental, acts of cleaning. In 1986, a small “grease stain” by Joseph Beuys was mopped away by a cleaner, and in 2001 an unknowing cleaner chucked out the ashtrays, beer-cans and half empty coffee cups of Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Eyestorm Gallery. Confronted with Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize-nominated My Bed, one patron of Tate Britain persistently continued to tuck the sheets back to a more acceptable state. In 2004, a cleaner chucked away the apparent remnants of Gustav Metzger’s First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art – a gesture I like to think Metzger would probably have applauded.

Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art 1960, remade 2004 by Gustav Metzger born 1926

In the majority of these cases what prevails are two glaringly sharp, probably opposing and frustratingly simplistic conclusions. The first is often concerned with the monetary value of the work: how much the work cost, and how much financial damage has been inflicted upon the unsuspecting artwork. (“Overzealous cleaner ruins £690,000 artwork” ran the Guardian’s headline). At the same time is an oft-propagated second argument, which roughly follows the trudged-out line about the status of contemporary art: these cleaners clearly thought that the works were rubbish, and so they endeavoured to put them in their rightful place. “Modern art is rubbish”, proclaimed Colin Blackstock in response to the Hirst incident. Rubbish is as rubbish does.

There is an infantile delight to be found in these stories, as they flit on the proverbial outskirts of the contemporary art world. Taken by some as the nadir of the contemporary moment, where art has become indiscernible from rubbish, this mackled distinction opens up a surfeit of fundamental questions about the institutional characteristics of cultural care.

What is interesting to me is that in the process of physically cleaning the material work of art, the work is actually made dirty – financially soiled and polluted by the very act intended to render it clean. The Kippenberger sculpture, for example, was in fact already clean. Yet, to those contemporary art detractors, as the cleaner scrubbed and scoured away the layer of paint, she ostensibly revealed the ‘rubbish’ nature of contemporary art: peeling back the dirty veneer of money and meaning to reveal its inherent worthlessness

But the cleaner’s intention was not of subversive critique. For all intents and purposes, in scrubbing the sculpture, she ostensibly performed an act of care. Cleaning and caring are closely linked, with abounding cleaning and care policy insurances for phones, home appliances and laptops. Indeed, care – in the form of cleaning, restoration and conservation – is perhaps one of the primary functions of a collecting institute like a gallery or museum. The very term curator has its origins in the Latin noun cura meaning ‘care’ as in either concern and trouble or attention and management. In Latin, curator meant guardian or overseer, which in Middle English came to have religious connotations in the idea of an ‘ecclesiastical pastor’ who was the guardian of a minor.

The contemporary use of ‘curator’ marks a distinction between an institutionally validated care role and the job of a cleaner.

The subject of care has since shifted from person to object. A curator now generally refers to a ‘keeper’ of a museum, with the responsibility of caring for a collection. This contemporary use therefore marks a distinction between the institutionally validated care role of the curator or conservator, who has been actively nominated as the keeper of the collection, and the job of the cleaner, which falls out from under the auspices of institutional validation.

But the lone, individual cleaner is not the only one liable to making a mistake. Institutions can err too, and frequently do. There are now a plethora of cases where restoration undertaken within the last 200 years is now considered institutionally incorrect. In the Victorian era, for example, a host of Church of England churches were “restored” by the likes of George Gilbert Scott to a faux-thirteenth-century Gothic style. William Morris, who argued for protection over restoration and founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, opposed such actions at the time. Today, the Victorian approach has been described as “insensitive, heavy-handed, and ruthless”.

Likewise, part of the restoration of the Parthenon Marbles during the 1930s included removing several inches of the paintwork. At the time, this process was considered the best method of restoration. But, several years later this was deemed to be an error and the damage is now considered beyond repair.

In response to such acts, the curatorial approach today is often in favour of a kind of informed inaction. But this too can cause problems. A friend of mine used to work at Tate St. Ives. He recently told me about the Barbara Hepworth sculptures located outside the gallery, which were often covered in the faeces of unassuming Cornish seagulls. Although the cleaning staff did their daily rounds, they were strictly informed not to touch or clean the excrement-ridden sculptures. It was imperative to wait for the conservation staff to perform that particular role using specialist tools and materials. However, according to my friend, the conservation staff were often too busy with other more pressing responsibilities, and the Hepworth sculptures would remain covered in excrement for days.

John Martin Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum Tate water damage

Another work of art entrusted to the Tate was John Martin’s monumental painting, Pompeii. In 1928, after a sustained period of heavy rainfall, the Thames burst its banks. The Tate’s lower galleries were flooded and many works, including some by Edwin Landseer and JMW Turner, damaged or destroyed. Pompeii itself was considered beyond repair. The painting was “flaking and dirty” and large sections were missing.

However, in 2010, new examinations of the painting carried out by Tate’s head of conservation revealed that it was in fact possible to restore the work and in some way return it to its ‘original’ state. It was decided that Pompeii was to be reconstructed in its entirety, which meant filling in the large section of the painting that was missing. Sarah Maisey, a restorer at Tate, undertook the painstaking task. In an interview with the Guardian, Maisey explained that the task felt like a huge responsibility: restorers, she said, don’t normally paint such large sections when restoring an artwork.

What I think emerges here is a distinction between cleaning and caring based on different types of attention, labour and commitment. At St. Ives, it was important to wait for the appropriate type of care, and to take time to adhere to the correct conservation procedure. Similarly, with Pompeii, the act of restoration took painstaking attention and skill. And it took time. In the case of Kippenburger, by contrast, the cleaner’s actions were repeatedly described as “rash” or “overzealous”. The cleaner had not taken the time, had acted alone, without due hesitation, consideration and outside of the institutionally sealed conservation protocols.

The ‘new’ is always a ‘new’ of a particular time. What is right for a piece of art remains, perhaps always, an open question.

It becomes undeniably evident that there is ‘good’ cleaning and ‘bad’ cleaning. There is cleaning that is institutionally acceptable and cleaning that is undertaken by outsourced, poorly paid labourers who lack the eye of the educated specialist. On the one hand, there is painstaking, careful conservation and on the other it is an act which is apparently both inattentive and even careless.

Yet, what is the difference between the act of restoring the Pompeii painting by adding large swathes of paint to its surface and the act of removing paint that was carried out by the cleaner of Kippenburger’s sculpture? Both acts sought to return the work from its current condition – damaged or unclean – to a prior state. Restoration is, after all, a temporal oxymoron and in the case of Pompeii, Maisey’s paintwork was an attempt to return the work to its pre-flood state, to take it back in time before its ruin and to make it somehow ‘new’ again. It was a restorative act that fought back against the vicissitudes of time: aging, destruction, and the influence of environmental changes such as temperature and natural disaster.

However, Tate’s restoration work may only be temporary. Curators are very aware that ideas of what constitutes good or bad care are themselves bound to specific times and contexts. Which is why Tate’s restoration of Pompeii is in fact reversible. If, in a few years time, the requirements or capabilities of conservation change, the painting can be re-restored back to how it looked, pre-Maisey’s intervention and post-flood. The painting can travel forwards again to 1928. It’s an interesting solution to a complex problem; one that acknowledges the way in which the care of objects of cultural value – both their cleaning and their conservation – is always subject to a ‘contemporary’ moment. The ‘new’ is always a ‘new’ of a particular time, and what is perhaps best or right for the piece of art often remains, perhaps always, an open question.

Such a summation offers a potential explanation to the outrage felt by those who deplore the cleaner’s actions. The cleaner’s actions reveal the potentially arbitrary stipulations of conservation: the cleaner’s actions might not be so different to how we consider the actions of Maisey in 40 years time. The non-institutionally verified cleaning techniques present a challenge to the auspices of restoration and conservation. Like the ‘bad care’ of Kippenburger’s cleaner, restoration and conservation, at one time or another, can too be considered ‘bad care’.


Part of The Learned Pig’s Clean Unclean editorial season, March-May 2015.

Image credits (from top):
Nathan Meijer, Parthenon Marbles
Gustav Metzger, Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, 1960, remade 2014
John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822.


The Learned Pig

Bryony White

Bryony is a writer, curator and researcher. She is Contributing Editor of FeltActs, an online journal that explores performance in an expanded field. As part of FeltActs, Bryony has curated HECKLE, a weekend festival of performance taking place at Bosse and Baum this forthcoming March. Other curatorial projects include Before Performance and The Lost Album. She has a Masters in Theatre and Performance from King's College London and recently completed a curatorial placement with Tate's performance department.