December 6, 2022

On Environmental Activism in Museums

Anne Bessette and Juliette Bessette

Ultima Generatione action at the Vatican Museum with the Laocoön on August 18, 2022. Photograph by Alessandro Pugliese.

“I often feel like I’m making a real-life version of [the movie] Don’t Look Up,” comments Rich Felgate, a young filmmaker who has captured on camera many of the actions of Just Stop Oil, an environmental activist group based in the UK.1 Recent studies in environmental psychology highlight a form of cognitive dissonance between the availability of scientific information on the climate crisis, and the behavior of individuals and the decisions of policymakers.2 The civil resistance actions that have taken place around works of art in various museums in Europe and Australia since the beginning of summer 2022, which have multiplied in recent weeks (up to about twenty so far), are intended to point out this contradiction.

Here, we offer an analysis of the way in which these actions anchor themselves as part of a strategy meant to attract media attention, with the aim of creating awareness around the adverse effects of climate change and, above all, pushing public authorities to overcome their inaction. It is interesting to observe how the modus operandi of these activists, and the new interpretations of the works that they offer though these actions, are both being used to support concrete demands that are aligned with scientific recommendations for the reduction of CO2 emissions. These demands are explicitly expressed in either the activist actions themselves, or the press releases that usually follow: the closure of fossil-fuel power plants and the gradual changeover to renewable energy within a specific time frame.

Network Strategy and Organization

Isolated cases of protest actions around works of art exhibited in museums have occurred at regular intervals in recent decades.3 For example, in 2012 the artist Uriel Landeros used spray paint and a stencil to paint a bull and the word “conquista” on Pablo Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair at the Menil Collection in Houston. He described his action as a performance piece for social justice, a politically charged act of defiance.4 In 1985, Rembrandt’s famous Danae was sprayed with sulfuric acid and slashed with a knife at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The perpetrator declared that he had acted with the purpose of reminding the public that his home country of Lithuania had been, at the time, under Soviet occupation for forty-five years. The perpetrators of these acts of vandalism, motivated by political or social aims, have frequently targeted infamous paintings whose degradation was likely to “make a splash” and thus amplify their message—much like the young man who, also in 1985, set fire to a painting of Philip IV by Rubens in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, to protest environmental pollution. In these cases, art vandalism is used to draw attention to a cause and give visibility to alternative ideas. The targeted piece is thus the instrument of the action; the act of destruction serves as a vehicle for the expression of grievances that seem to have little to do with the piece itself.

The cases that we analyze here differ from these previous acts of art vandalism for several reasons. First, in the cases we analyze it does not seem appropriate to speak of vandalism at all, even though that is the way they are often described in the press. The activists in question act nonviolently. They do not carry out “attacks” against artworks. Most often they target works that are protected by glass, and they often intervene outside of a work’s protective perimeter (barriers, pedestals, surrounding walls5), taking care not to damage the physical integrity of the work—although it is important to note that recent actions suggest that the phenomenon is likely to evolve from that.6 In any case, these works of art are not attacked in the destructive ways that characterize many historical example of art vandalism (throwing acid, burning, cutting, etc.). Second, the selection of the targeted artworks appears to be directly correlated with the media attention the pieces are likely to generate, but also with their capacity to support a certain discourse. As we will see, environmental activists use these pieces specifically to give form to their ecological claims.

Finally, these actions are not individual initiatives or isolated acts, in contrast to the aforementioned instances of past vandalism. They take place within a larger, organized framework of civil resistance movements and originate, for the most part, from the international A22 network, a coalition of environmental groups that operate in concert with one another through a shared vision, organization, strategy, and modus operandi.

These groups are mostly financed by the Climate Emergency Fund and are efficiently organized around a dedicated pole of activities (communication, strategy, etc.), implementing a wide range of activist actions such as blocking highways and interrupting sports events. Their common motivation is to generate a disruption that is impossible to ignore in order to force citizens to react and to pressure governments into taking concrete steps against climate degradation. Among these actions, those that take place in museums benefit from intense media coverage.

The Museum as Center Stage

“These actions … are effective because they are counterintuitive,” explains Michele Giuli, cofounder of A22 and Ultima Generazione, the Italian collective behind several of these actions. As opposed to more materially disruptive actions—for example, blocking oil infrastructure—these actions seek to break the illusion of a harmonious world on a global scale. They aim to underline the idea that “the problem of the climate crisis is not only the climate crisis itself, but the immorality of our societies at large, which are easily choked by anything that disturbs their tranquility, even for just a moment.”7 In other words, the disproportionate reactions that these actions provoke are at the very heart of the issue that the activists are trying to highlight. Their rhetoric is based on the discrepancy between the public’s outrage towards the false “damage” caused to these art pieces on one hand, and the general indifference towards the very real destruction of life on earth.8 The perceived violence of these actions serves as a way to highlight the actual violence of our societies: the indifference and inertia, not to mention the cynicism.

Museums, and the artworks they are responsible for preserving, are targeted to create a staged spectacle. Indeed, this particular setting is conducive to the creation of striking images, which have quickly spread all over the world. “Two people, no money, pictures in Russian newspapers, it’s amazing,” says Michele Giuli. The context of a museum exhibit is used as the baseline for the creation of a new, living tableau composed of activists posing next to their chosen artwork(s), facing the media lens. The tableau is often embellished with other elements—tags, banners, and various splatterings, such as food—amplifying the visual impact of the scene.

We are not accustomed to such images. Indeed they are unprecedented. Until now, when works of art had been attacked in museums, the visual traces of these acts of vandalism—when they existed—were of poor quality, revealing only a damaged part of the painting or, in rare cases, the piece and its assailant. The documenting of these actions has never been done in such an elaborate manner, with perfect frontal views of the scene.

The way these actions are set up around works of art exhibited in museums is interesting to examine in this respect. They imitate the type of nonviolent environmental activism in which immobilization and blockades are the classic modes of operation, though now with the novel use of superglue. A true sign of current environmental activism, superglue is a tool that gives activists enough time to produce the iconic images that have circulated around the world. Security personnel find themselves unwilling to “tear off” activists from the frames, windows, or walls to which they have affixed themselves, thereby giving them the time they need to make a speech in front of the targeted artwork and facilitate the photographing of the scene.

Each element of the activists’ modus operandi is oriented towards the objective of creating and disseminating powerful images. The choice of the artwork(s) is made according to what the piece represents both socially and figuratively, through a logic of association that is embedded in the activists’ speeches.

Palimpsest Artworks

The chosen paintings and sculptures are often from famous artists or are themselves very well-known pieces, entrenched in our visual culture. This notoriety helps to pique the interest of journalists, who relay the information and, at the same time, intensify the public’s emotional reaction. The activists also seek to disrupt the habitual way in which these pieces are perceived by offering new lenses of interpretation, all the while serving the public circulation of their claims.

The new narratives emerging from these pieces may also on occasion be directly related to the scene depicted in the art. This is the case with several landscape paintings where the question of the impact of human activity on nature is highlighted. For example: Van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom, an oil on canvas, to whose frame two members of Just Stop Oil glued their hands on June 30, 2022 at the Courtauld Gallery in London. It was chosen because of its depiction of the Provence region in France, which is currently prone to extreme drought due to climate change. This landscape, painted in 1889, can now be compared to the summer of 2022, during which rainfall levels were recorded at 45 percent below historical average in the region, causing water restrictions to be enforced. Another landscape painting, Thomson’s Aeolian Harp (1809) by William Turner, illustrates a view of the Thames on the edge of London, an area now threatened by rising water levels. In an action on July 31, 2022 at the Manchester Art Gallery, two activists put their glue-coated hands on its frame after having tagged, with paint, the ground in front of the artwork with the slogan “No New Oil.”

The representation of rural nature is sometimes summoned in a more symbolic way, as was the case with John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821), which was at the center of an environmental action that took place at the National Gallery in London on July 4, 2022. Before gluing one of their hands to the frame, two activists placed a printed image of the same landscape on the surface of the artwork in an updated form, ravaged by human activities dependent on fossil fuels (a plane passing in the sky, a dried-up river, etc.). In this contemporary vision of decay, the destruction of the scene does not come about through the effects of time, but due to frenetic and violent human activity. When the Ultima Generazione collective organized an action around Sandro Botticelli’s Spring (1478–82) at the Uffizi Museum in Florence on July 22, 2022, the reference to nature became more metaphorical: “I was seven years old when, after a day of complete boredom at the museum, I became ecstatic in front of the beauty, harmony, and peace conveyed by this painting,” commented Laura, one of the activists involved in the action, after gluing her hand to the painting’s protective glass. This time, there wasn’t any reference to human activity, just the enumeration of values suggested by the lushness of nature in this allegorical painting: “I consider that my presence here today is a way of honoring this first love I experienced for art, by making it the instrument of a collective awakening that will ultimately lead us to realize the power we hold when we decide to use our body as a vector for political pressure.”9

The two activists from Just Stop Oil who, on November 11, 2022 in Oslo, tried to glue their hands to Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) capitalized on the status of this symbolic piece of human existential anguish: “I scream when politicians ignore science,” “I scream when I see nature dying in front of my eyes,” “I scream when people die in floods, heat waves, and from starvation,” “I scream with fear,” they exclaimed in turn. Norway is the biggest oil-producing country in Europe. The idea of an apocalyptic panic that calls into question the attachment to earthly goods can sometimes be seen through these actions.

Symbolic Appropriations

Among these activists, who appear to have mastered the codes of museum culture, we can observe an underlying willingness to desacralize these art pieces in favor of new thoughts and proactive actions. One of the activists who participated in an action around the Laocoön Group, which took place on August 18, 2022 at the Vatican Museum, had just obtained her art history degree. Seeking to break the cultural expectation that we can only passively gaze at museum pieces, she highlighted a more sacrificial approach: “It was never my ambition to publicly expose myself in this way, disturbing the silence of a museum and gluing myself to an iconic artwork. But we have little choice when it comes to forcing institutions to hear the alarm!”10

The fact that the Laocoön’s theme and the climate crisis echo one another is of particular importance here. This ancient Roman copy of a Greek original depicts an episode from mythology in which Laocoön, a Trojan priest, is killed along with his two sons by serpents after he tries to warn the Trojans of the danger of letting the Trojan horse into their city. These snakes, sent by Poseidon to silence the priest, are what ultimately ensure the other side’s victory. For Ultima Generazione, the climate and energy crisis are the historical factors that may lead to the downfall of not just a city, but all life on earth. The Ultima Generazione press release states:

Much like Laocoön in the ancient world, our current scientists and activists are trying to warn our communities of the catastrophic consequences of inaction towards the mitigation of the climate crisis. Like Laocoön … scientists and activists are not being listened to, or worse, they are repeatedly silenced by governments.

Environmental activists have appropriated this foundational story and set themselves up as figures of civil resistance, only this time not in a mythical way but in reality.

Among the body of works targeted by environmental actions, the sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) by Umberto Boccioni, a beacon of the Italian Futurist movement—activists from Ultima Generazione glued their hands to it on July 30, 2022 at the Museo del Novecento in Milan—represents a particularly interesting case. In this instance, a critical discourse was formulated against what the piece represents. This sculpted figure, flung headfirst towards progress, its edges seeming to dissolve in its dynamic forward movement, is a metaphor for the way of life associated with industrial modernity, as well as for the ideology advanced by this avant-garde movement. The press release explains: “We glued ourselves to Boccioni’s bronze because we can no longer afford to rush headlong into economic progress. The progress that the futurists hoped for is the same progress that is now leading us to mass extinction.”11 Separated by more than a century, Futurist artists and contemporary environmental activists both pose the question of the future, but give antithetical answers.

Apart from this Boccioni sculpture, activists generally evince a sincere attachment to the pieces they target. Michele Giuli explains:

When we choose a piece of art, it’s because we really like it, we love it. Most of the time, it’s one of the favorite paintings or statues of the people involved. Using a piece of art without damaging it to alert humanity about the dangers facing it: I think Van Gogh would have been excited about that.12

Who Will Make These Artworks Speak?

On November 9, 2022, during COP27 in Egypt, ninety-two museums directors issued a joint statement in response to these actions, warning activists that they largely underestimate the fragility of the targeted artworks.13 A few days later, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) took a more conciliatory stance, acknowledging these conservation concerns but affirming its desire “for museums to be seen as allies in facing the common threat of climate change.” This statement supports environmental activists and the idea that they are not pitting culture and activism against one another, but are trying to draw the whole of society into the same movement. In this tense context, ICOM is now lucidly questioning the role that museums can play “in shaping and creating a sustainable future.”14 ICOM’s reaction is significant in the sense that one of the aims of civil resistance actions is forcing different institutions and social actors to take a stand. Although ICOM does not encourage these acts, the fact that the only international organization dedicated to museums and museum professionals does not condemn them, despite their illegality, is notable. It will be interesting to see how the judicial systems of various countries react when compelled, in the case of legal proceedings, to take a position on the legitimacy of these actions.

For these activists, appropriating the space of the museum and proposing new ways of looking at artworks—symbols of intergenerational inheritance whose reality is itself questioned by the Anthropocene era—is perhaps also a way of expressing the enduring hope that there may still be a future to plan and dream about. As Caspar Hughes, an activist with Just Stop Oil, points out: “The culture within which the art world exists often leads to positive changes in society.”15 At a time when most museums professionals are struggling to bring in “young audiences” and trying to make these spaces inclusive, should they not be reflecting on constructive ways to welcome these symbolic acts of peaceful appropriation, which place their collections at the center of urgently needed public discussion and consciousness raising?

One frequently finds, in the reception of these actions, a rhetoric of the instrumentalization of artworks that feeds on the idea that they have an aesthetic life of their own. According to this perspective, the appropriation of artworks by activists goes against their very nature, which is to be silently contemplated. Other discourses seem to advance the idea that only art historians or museum curators have the authority to give interpretations of art. Yet these same pieces are themselves regularly placed at the heart of political and diplomatic issues by governments. Indeed, museum collections are a key instrument of soft power for political authorities, the very authorities to whom these environmental claims are addressed through acts of civil resistance. The actions which we have described seem to us to be citizen appropriations of our collective heritage in favor of political and social issues whose extreme urgency cannot be overstated.


Quoted in Corentin Lesueur, “Des tableaux aspergés, des statues entartées, des événements sportifs interrompus: Cet activisme écologiste prêt à choquer pour mobiliser,” Le Monde, October 27, 2022 .


Tony W. Wainwright, Margarida Gaspar de Matos, and Katariina Salmela-Aro, “Psychology and the Environmental Crisis,” European Psychologist, no. 26 (2021) .


See Anne Bessette, Du vandalisme d’œuvres d’art: Destructions, dégradations et interventions dans les musées en Europe et en Amérique du Nord depuis 1970 (L’Harmattan, 2021).


Hrag Vartanian, “The Evolving and Bizarre Story of Houston’s Vandalized Picasso,” Hyperallergic, June 20, 2012 .


For example, the group Ultima Generazione declared that they had consulted restoration experts prior to carrying out their actions in museums, in order to ensure that no damage would be done to the works. Interview with Michele Giuli conducted by Anne Bessette, October 29, 2022. It should be noted, however, that some frames may be of fragile historical heritage.


Two actions on November 18, 2022, carried out directly on three-dimensional works of art—Andy Warhol’s 1979 painted BMW Art Car (Milan, Ultima Generazione) and contemporary artist Charles Ray’s equestrian sculpture Horse and Rider (2014) (Paris, Dernière Rénovation, work located in public space)—suggest that the phenomenon could be shifting.


Interview with Michele Giuli conducted by Anne Bessette, October 29, 2022.


Ultima Generazione press release, July 30, 2022. “Nello stesso modo in cui difendiamo il nostro patrimonio artistico, dovremmo dedicarci alla cura e alla protezione del pianeta che condividiamo con il resto del mondo.”


Ultima Generazione press release, July 22, 2022.


Ultima Generazione press release, August 18, 2022.


Ultima Generazione press release, July 30, 2022.


Interview with Michele Giuli conducted by Anne Bessette, October 29, 2022.


“Statement: Attacks on Artworks in Museums,” November 9, 2022 .


“Statement: Museums and Climate Activism,” ICOM, November 11, 2022 .


Interview with Caspar Hughes conducted by Anne Bessette, November 4, 2022.

Nature & Ecology, Museums
Protests & Demonstrations, Art Activism, Environment

Anne Bessette is a sociologist and an associate researcher at CERLIS, Paris. She is the author of Du vandalisme d’œuvres d’art: Destructions, dégradations et interventions dans les musées en Europe et en Amérique du Nord depuis 1970 (Art vandalism: Destruction, degradation and interventions in museums in Europe and North America since 1970 [2021, untranslated]).

Juliette Bessette is an art historian and an associate researcher at Centre André Chastel, Paris.


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