A work of art on loan in Glasgow has been destroyed by a faulty humidification plant that was provided by a third party contractor. It was on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, which perpetually rents out large parts of its collection on global tours with no larger scholarly or aesthetic purpose beyond raising cash. It was on loan to 'Glasgow Life', the group of apparatchiks responsible for Glasgow's museums, who recently rubbished NG director Nicholas Penny's concerns about loan risks when they got Sir William Burrell's will overturned so they can rent out his collection on a grand global tour too.
This tragic story is full of lessons: lessons about the risks to works of art on loan, the risk of trusting Glasgow Life with anything and the dangers of using third party contractors. But the National Galleries of Scotland have responded with a big shoulder-shrug. 'Shit happens', seems to be the message. They acknowledge that works of art are vulnerable, but underline the importance of sharing and confirm that they'll continue merrily lending to Glasgow Life, before they can even have had the opportunity to investigate what went wrong and identified lessons to be learned. The unseemly haste with which the confirmed business-as-usual suggests a cavalier attitude to risk assessment, and a view that loans will continue irrespective of risk. It's as if a bank that lost its shirt in sub-prime mortgages were to react with a press statement underlining above all its firm ongoing commitment to issuing more sub-prime mortgages, or the passport office reacted to complaints of delays by confirming that they won't be changing any of their working practices.
Accidents do happen, and maybe no one can reasonably be held responsible for the damage in Glasgow. But let us not overlook the enormity of this. The first and most vital job of any museum is to ensure it protects the works of art in its custody. They have failed catastrophically: a work of art has been completely destroyed, and no one seems to think any investigation is needed, or anyone needs to be held to account, or anything needs to change. That attitude is culpable. I do not trust a museum that can be so blasé, and people should be held accountable for that failure. New leadership is obviously needed, and the trustees have a responsibility to take action if existing management won't.
There is a currently fashionable fanaticism about lending that holds it is always good and always safe to lend. What began as a reasonable and sensible attempt to assess risk and promote access to art has become atrophied into an unshakable belief in the moral rightness of always lending. The fanatics take a ferociously defensive stance against any who question their ideology. This creates its own risks, because they come to believe that any damage that does happen must be hidden or minimised lest it gives succor to their misguided critics. It's rare for news of damage to reach the public, but I've heard confidentially of other examples hushed up, and of museums lying to lenders about the protection that will be given. The lending fanatics believe original works of art are important enough that they must be transported around the world to get maximum exposure. But do they care enough to preserve them?