Organizers of PEACOCKalypse at the Freer and Sackler galleries in June promised that the party would have the courtyard buzzing with danceable hits.
And so it did. Nearly 1,000 visitors donned peacock-style feathers, sipped colorful cocktails and danced to live music until midnight.
The party, named for the Freer’s famed Peacock Room and its “alter-ego” exhibition, “Filthy Lucre,” was part of the Smithsonian galleries’ “Asia After Dark” series, which aims to “engage a new generation of young professional museumgoers and donors.” (According to a museum spokesman, the cost of PEACOCKalypse was about $20,000 and ticket sales brought in more than $26,700.)
But the courtyard wasn’t the only thing buzzing that night: The galleries, with their millennia-old stone and metal sculptures, also were shaking from the amplified music.
Vibrations, although little understood in the art conservation field, can pose grave risks to art. And as museums are increasingly hosting events to increase foot traffic and court younger visitors, those concerns are weighing on conservationists, the guardians of the precious pieces.
“If someone spills red wine on something, everyone can see it. If somebody is moving chairs around and setting up tables for an event and they hit an object and chip it or break it, that you can see right away. But with vibrations, sometimes you can have a cumulative effect that you cannot see,” says Terry Drayman-Weisser, who recently retired from Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, where she directed conservation and technical research for nearly 40 years.
Beth Duley, head of collections management at the Freer and Sackler, says that before works go on display, the staff examines them carefully.
“Anything that we put on display, we’re sure that it’s stable,” she says. When the galleries host events with bands, such as PEACOCKalypse, the performers are restricted to the courtyard or to a lobby without art. And after such events, the artwork is examined again, says Duley, who says no damage was found after the June party.
When an earthquake rocked the region in August 2011, the staff’s first concern was with the porcelains in the Peacock Room. But staffers found them, and the museum’s entire collection, unscathed, Duley says.
“We didn’t have any problem whatsoever,” she says, “and the reason we didn’t have any problem is because whenever we install art, we install it with the thought that there may be risk, there may be security, there may be reasons that if we can make it as secure as possible just for the general public on a Monday afternoon that it will hold tight if we have something very serious like an earthquake.”
Drayman-Weisser, however, says that when she asked colleagues whether they had seen objects “walk” off shelves due to vibrations, she received several affirmative responses.
“I’ve personally seen that myself,” she says. “The shelves themselves can come loose from the structure that’s holding them.”
Vibrations from construction projects are a more obvious source of concern than those from music, Drayman-Weisser says. And more research is needed on acceptable decibel limits for musical performances in museums and on the role played by such factors as object material and architectural structure.
Ancient stone and metal sculptures, such as those in the rooms vibrating at PEACOCKalypse, aren’t as safe as they sound. Despite their heft, ancient stone sculptures have natural veins or flaws running through them, and they become brittle over time. The same, Drayman-Weisser says, goes for ancient metal objects.
“Just because you haven’t seen a catastrophic failure while the music is playing doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some internal structural change or damage that may show up much, much later,” she says. “I’ve felt vibrations in museums that I’ve visited when there are special events — rock bands and things like that. It’s hard to imagine that it’s not a problem.”
That museums host rock bands was news to Sarah Fisher, who retired three years ago after 30 years at the National Gallery of Art, where she was head of painting conservation.
“The National Gallery has always had the tradition of having classical music concerts in the indoor courtyards,” Fisher says. “I’ve never heard of [vibrations being] worried about, probably because at the National Gallery we didn’t have that sort of music.”
“Wow. It was actually shaking?” says Joyce Stoner, who was senior conservator overseeing the Peacock Room from 1988 to 1993, when told about PEACOCKalypse. Nevertheless, she says, conservators today have to be open to things that would have been anathema a generation ago, such as parties with loud bands.
“Any answer in conservation begins with, ‘It depends,’ ” says Stoner, who is now director of the University of Delaware’s preservation studies doctoral program. But, she adds, “we’re all going to die in museums if we don’t open the doors and get more people excited about coming in.”
For example, visitors can drink cocktails and listen to music on the great steps of the Philadelphia Museum and on a balcony overlooking the main hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “The whole idea of that would have enraged the people who trained me in the ’60s,” Stoner says, when conservators were far more rigid in what they would allow.
In the best possible world, conservators are called in to help plan special events. But it doesn’t always play out that way. Eryl Wentworth, executive director of the American Institute for Conservation, a 3,500-member group, says she thinks only a small percentage of conservators have a consistent seat at the planning table.
“I heard constantly for many years, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk to conservators. All they do is say no,’ ” she says.
Becky Fifield, a museum emergency preparedness and preservation consultant based in New York, also says that conservators have been considered “problematic to involve” but that their role is just as important as outreach.
“Museums need to do programming and to highlight their collections and promote their mission and educational goals for each of their audiences,” she says. “That balance has to be there: preservation and access.”
Fifield says that although she has seen papers on earthquake risks and vibrations from construction, she hasn’t seen research on music.
“Most museums are probably thinking more about patrons with their drinks and food than they are about vibrations of the music,” she says. “I would love to see research done on it. It would help a lot of museums.”
That lack of knowledge about risks also is a hurdle to public awareness, says Fifield, who has blogged about much more obvious damage to the art world: the destruction of ancient art and architecture by extremists.
“That shows a momentary act against so many thousands of years of care and protection for those works,” Fifield says, noting that those crimes are physical acts against a culture, as well against those who preserved the works over the ages.
In light of such atrocities, Drayman-Weisser says, it is even more important for U.S. museums to care for their collections of artifacts from the Middle East and prevent even unintentional damage such as that which might occur from music vibrations.
“It’s like the disaster waiting to happen,” says Drayman-Weisser, who works with the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage. “Some of these ancient things are being whittled down to dust. There’s more of a responsibility for the rest of the world to preserve what they can.”
Perhaps, she says, it will take a smoking gun to change hearts and minds.
“I think if you had a video of a rock band in a museum with objects falling over and crashing and being destroyed, you’d have a fairly strong reaction.”
Wecker is a freelance writer.