Does museum glass cause more harm than good to oil paintings?

Image: Birmingham Museums Trust

With many paintings in danger of damage, are museums protecting the longevity of their valuables?

We’ve all seen the uproar regarding climate activists “damaging” Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. Following the incident, staff at the museum has confirmed, “there is minor damage to the frame, but the painting is unharmed.”

Many may question how the painting had not been damaged. Here is a brief insight into how Van Gogh’s painting was left “unharmed” and whether museums are “protecting” oil paintings with glass screens.

Museums use a special glass known as “museum glass”, also referred to as “non-reflection glass”. It is a reflection control screen which filters the UV to prevent fading; moreover, the details are much sharper on the material. Oil paintings are one of the few types of artworks that don’t need glass protection, as the final varnish is often considered sufficient. Some museums may have oil paintings with a glass screen to protect against vandalism. For instance, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

At the end of the 19th century, Van Gogh and other artists used yellow paint with chrome, an artificial pigment. The vibrant hue is highly sensitive to light and has discoloured over time into an olive-brown shade. The brush strokes on his paintings invite many to feel the course textures of the artwork. However, one’s touch may cause more harm than good due to its sensitivity. As a result paintings as such must be protected from damage due to its vulnerability.

Despite museums protecting artworks with glass screens, it can be argued the protection may cause the painting to deteriorate over time due to lack of air. As mentioned before, oil paintings are susceptible, especially those with synthetic pigment, so it would be advised museums find an alternative method to protect these valuable pieces. Famous paintings are prone to vandalism and theft due to their cultural impact; therefore, a different method that would guarantee the complete protection of these arts and not just the exterior will lengthen their lifespan. 

Words: Mathumithah Kandiah   Subbing: Bethany Lander

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