Here’s What Would Happen If You Accidentally Damaged Artwork In A Museum

Oh, you’re responsible for your kids, too

When you walk into the cavernous, hushed halls of a museum, two thoughts likely pass through your head. The first is, How would I go about stealing something off the walls here, Thomas Crown-style? The second less sinister, but more probable, concern is, What would happen if I accidentally knocked over this statue?

Just the thought of such a blunder is enough to give you anxiety, but you adjust to your surroundings and carry on. If you have kids in tow, it’s likely that the fear won’t be so quick to dissipate, but that’s just one of the joys of parenthood, isn’t it?

Just be glad this wasn’t your kid:

It’s only natural to have your imagination run wild when you and yours are given relatively unfettered access to so many significant, historic, and expensive treasures. But sometimes things go wrong, and the idle rumination becomes a very real problem for the visitor and museum alike.

In a recent Artsy piece by Isaac Kaplan, the writer examines a few instances where—oops—a museum visitor accidentally trashed a piece on display and faced the fallout from their clumsiness and/or inattentiveness.

So what DOES happen if you are responsible for accidentally damaging a work of art on public display? Well, the usual caveat applies—every situation is different—but for the most part, you’re going to be ok.

I mean, you’ll be too ashamed to visit that museum (or possibly any other one, again), but if it’s an accident, you probably will have to face the music, disclose the damage and your clumsiness, but that’s about it. You won’t spend the rest of your days working in the gift shop to pay down that Ming vase you knocked over.

That’s because museums are insured out the wazoo for instances just like this. They’re almost exclusively nonprofit, and many of the pieces they contain are actually on loan or are gifts from other collections or museums. According to Artsy’s interview with Colin Quinn, the director of claims at AXA Art Americas Corporation, less than 10 percent of claims paid out are due to damage by visitors. (Damage during transit, in storage, and by staff, however, is much more common.)

At the risk of oversimplifying, damaged art is the cost of doing business and, at some point, the visitor experience has to be weighed against the measures taken to protect art. Putting everything behind plexiglass might keep everything safe, but a trip to the museum would lose a lot of its luster if everything was viewed behind glass.

So if you break something, you don’t need to be scared. You’ll be terrified nonetheless, but you don’t need to be. Tell someone in charge what happened, the sooner the better. Historically, the museum will take your information—not to collect on the damage, but to issue a full report to the insurance company so that they can get a check for their imminent claim.

Were you to handle the situation differently and take off running, well, you wouldn’t be any more or less culpable, but were the museum to find you, which they almost certainly would via their limitless surveillance, the tone of your inevitable meeting would likely be less cordial. And far more awkward.

Museums are happy to have you. Ultimately, they’re in the business of sharing art with the world, so dishing out draconian punishments for accidents by people just trying to get a little culture in their lives doesn’t help them achieve their goal. They also know that damn near every piece on display exceeds your net worth, so the likelihood of reimbursement by the offending party is virtually nil.

In the end, the shame of getting caught on a security camera backing into an Etruscan sculpture while trying to snap a selfie should be reason enough to stay focused and aware. So let’s post one more shameful video as a deterrent.

Ok. That parent should probably be billed.

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