It turned out the infrared sensor “wasn’t functioning property and the member of public was not deterred from moving close to the object”, according to the AGNSW’s incident log.
That log, obtained by The Sun-Herald under freedom of information laws, details more than 100 separate incidents at the gallery in the past four years. They range from accidental damage and young children who simply want to touch the artworks, to caterers gone rogue and vandals on publicly-accessible sculptures outside the city’s largest artistic institution.
One of the largest sculptures on display – Michael Parekowhai’s stainless steel rendering of Captain James Cook displayed prominently on the ground floor of the gallery – appears to have been used for everything from a support to a table.
“On two recent occasions (April and May 2018) there has been evidence of ring marks (from drinks) on the table top and residues of a thick surface deposit (possibly food) found on the table top and across the body of the figure,” one incident report reads.
“Despite the presence of grip tape, ‘no touching’ signs and a [member of staff], persons attending after-hours functions, as well as the general public, continue to physically interact with the sculpture.”
Then there were the less accidental interactions. “Sculpture climbed on at 1am by 3 people and rental bicycle placed on top of bronze base of sculpture (bicycle found on top of sculpture and CCTV vision viewed by security and conservation),” an October 2017 incident report reads.
And in 2016, Marea Gazzard’s sculpture Selini I was on display in the ground floor restaurant when a caterer began cleaning it with a Sani Cloth. “They were told to discontinue,” the log recounts.
But Kerry Head, the AGNSW’s senior objects conservator, says damage to art is extremely rare.
“In the past year the gallery has exhibited over 2800 works and hosted over 1.3 million visitors, including over 90,000 students and teachers and nearly 60,000 family program participants,” she says.
“We take considerable care in the planning and management of exhibitions resulting in less than 0.4 per cent of those works requiring additional conservation as a consequence of being on display.”
And while there are incidents from time to time, Ms Head says she has found most people are “incredibly respectful in their interaction with works on display”. Most, however, does not mean all.
One incident report about Grayson Perry’s Map of truths and beliefs noted “a child was caught drawing on the tapestry with a pencil while the parents looked on”.
Ms Head says the gallery tries to “strike a balance between supporting audience engagement with the art and protecting it for future generations”.
“For example, if the work is by a living artist, they themselves might request a minimal level of visible safety measures so that the public can experience their work at close proximity, while an 18th century vase from the Asian art collection could be on view behind glass in a display cabinet,” she says.
Of course, the AGNSW is hardly the only gallery or museum to confront these issues. People’s compulsion to touch artwork – despite signage imploring them not to – has been the subject of several academic studies, most recently by Fiona Carlin, a researcher at Birkbeck College, London.
Professor Carlin, who once worked at Tate Liverpool, describes sitting in the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum and watching a young boy shadow boxing with the enormous portrait of Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt for 30 years 3300 years ago.
“He danced slightly on his feet as if anticipating a punch, jabbed out, backed off, came forwards again and hit straight, bringing his blow up short so that the force was lessened and his hand came to rest on that of the sculpture, knuckle against knuckle,” she wrote.
Attendants at the British Museum who spoke to Professor Carlin gave a variety of reasons why they thought visitors would interact with the work. “Please don’t touch” signs were interpreted as applying to other exhibits in the same space, a lack of benches meant people would sit on plinths and rest on sculptures, and some visitors thought that it was like “Madame Tussauds or a theme park”.
Visitors confirmed some of these reasons.
“I think it is great that things are so accessible in this gallery. If they don’t want people to touch them, they would have put them away,” one woman told Professor Carlin.
Kylar Loussikian is The Sydney Morning Herald’s CBD columnist.