The vandalism and theft of monuments has never been more topical. In July last year the BBC reported nine news stories on the vandalism of heritage compared to none in the whole of 2008. The launch of initiatives such as the Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage, the Heritage Crime Programme and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Metal Theft Working Group, suggests that the conservation community is concerned that the stories that hit the headlines are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a strong sense that this is a critical time and that steps must be taken to prevent the problem escalating further.
Taking the trouble to consider carefully why an object has been vandalised makes for better conservation decisions, and sometimes reveals a slightly less bleak picture of the human race, which must be good for any conservator’s soul.
Why would someone vandalise a Monument?
Iconoclasm – The destruction of cultural property for political or religious ideals. This type of vandalism is probably as old as art itself. A current exhibition at Tate Britain, ‘Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm’, explores such attacks on art in Britain since the 16th century. The objects on display demonstrate that this type of vandalism is not a modern phenomenon.
Celebration – Sometimes out of sheer exuberance, people feel the need to ‘decorate’ a sculpture or climb to its highest point. This may take the form of applying lipstick or placing a jaunty traffic cone on a monument’s head. Particularly during sporting events and even elections, the desire to climb sculptures seems to be overwhelming for some.
Tagging – The addition of a unique signature or ‘tag’ to an object is about being seen. Some types of tagging reportedly relate to gangs marking territory.
Attention seeking – This kind of vandalism can often result in breakages. Commonly, sculptures are climbed and the weaker points suffer damage. The statue at the top of the Shaftesbury Memorial (popularly known as Eros although it actually depicts his brother Anteros) is a common target for people who want to get noticed. Each year, there is usually at least one ascent resulting in some kind of damage. The delicate bowstring is often snapped and sometimes the bow is bent out of alignment and requires careful manipulation under moderate heat to return it to its intended shape.
Theft – It is not just the successful theft of metal statues for scrap that results in the loss of historic fabric. The thieves are often opportunists who lack suitable tools. Sadly their efforts can still cause extensive damage.
Vendettas – Bizarre as it may sound, some statues have their own enemies. Vandalism in such cases is targeted and undertaken repeatedly. This type of vandalism can take the form of graffiti or less superficial damage.
Random attacks – This type of damage can be the most difficult to deal with. Quite often, the decision to vandalise has been entirely unpremeditated and so a person uses anything they might have on them such as a penknife or key.
Social problems – Statues often provide a focal point for people to gather around and in some areas statues seem to be a magnet for people with social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse or mental health issues. Vandalism in this category is often prolific and may take a variety of forms, from graffiti to arson.
Usually, the first method trialled to remove graffiti from stone is steam, soap and a nylon brush. This is often successful, although ghosting can be left behind. This is the result of the intense pigment density of the paint which has penetrated the stone. When this type of ghosting occurs, repetition and patience can yield a positive result in time. However, if the object in question is a famous, high profile monument this adds an extra dimension of pressure to any conservation works, especially if there is intense public and media interest.
Removal of paint-based graffiti from a bronze statue is relatively simple provided it is done promptly. Steam is usually the first method attempted but there is also an array of solvents which can be tried without fear of affecting the underlying patina. Unlike varnish layers on paintings, it is not necessary to worry about removing one material without dissolving another. However, the aftermath of graffiti left on for months at a time is usually more challenging.
Cause and Effect
It is perhaps a little simplistic to look at the motives behind vandalism only in terms of the broad categories discussed at the beginning of this article. In reality, the motives overlap – social problems and tagging, for example, often coincide. In Banksy’s words ‘graffiti is one of the few tools you have when you have nothing.’
However, it is useful for a conservator to consider the why of vandalism or theft, because knowing your vandal not only helps with choosing the best conservation treatments, but also makes it easier to help prevent the damage occurring again. When you put a label on the type of vandalism that has occurred then the preventive conservation solutions often become obvious.
Thanks to Building Conservation for providing us with this delightfully engaging article – “Repairing Public Monuments and Sculpture” written by Lucy Branch.
Credit to Building Conservation for sharing these key days with us.
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