The last Sunday in August at the Met was crowded as usual, even after 5 p.m. “In 10 minutes, we are going to clean the galleries,” one of the security guards told us. “Or as someone called ‘the blue wave’, because most people have never thought so much blue polyester in one place!” What I have found is that the Met has been lenient in security in those period rooms. In the early 17th and 18th century rooms on the 3rd floor, visitors can go through rooms and inevitably touch the beams, doors and fireplaces. Even some first floor 19th century rooms allow visitors walk through. It was there I was more worried than some security guards when seeing some backpackers walking in and passing some lamps.
Visitors may not know or see curators, but they directly interact with museum security guards. Perhaps there are no better people to ask for visitors experience than these people whose daily job is observing visitors. “This museum really needs more restrooms!” One of the guards at the Brooklyn Museum told me when I was on the third floor. “It was awkward when I told them they either have to walk to one end and take one flight down or need walk through the court to the elevator for a different choice.”
Another guard at the same museum told me that some window cabinets with multiple objects need simple number tags to link the objects and their label descriptions. “You have all the labels at the bottom and all objects hanging there. Which one goes to which? Most people have no clue.” Similar problems can be found in the new American Wing at the Met. Some pottery cabinets display vases with a small number next to them. But the label at the bottom does not give the description of every object. A worse scenario happened in the Luce Visible Center where items are in and out all the time. I have spotted more than a dozen paintings which do not carry a simple label of accession number.
At the Forbidden City Museum, Beijing, China, the security guards are also the docents for each separate building. In general, they give one “citation” of the architecture every hour. But of course, there is not much interaction between the guards, who stand behind the bar, and visitors who line up before the open door, nor would they enjoy the opportunity, since little improvisation can be made after the same paragraph has been recited thousands of times.
The current economic downturn also has an impact on the museum guards. Some museums issue furlough and ask for more foot coverage per person. At the Wadsworth Museum, I have found security guards constantly walking through galleries at fast pace. The Met is definitely better staffed and guards walk more leisurely. But then they have more heads to watch even when standing still.
Although most of the museums have taken advantage of sensor technology to warn visitors when they get close to some objects, different sensing systems have their pros and cons. Perhaps the most annoying one is at the Newark Museum where the shadow of one’s hand over a painting may trigger an alarm which needs guards manually shut it off, therefore the technology instead increase the needs for human labor. At MFA, Boston, the beep will be set on a few seconds only if the directly line between the light source device and the light reception device is blocked. (Of course, I avoided blocking the direct line and got some nice close-up shots for some chairs.)
The headache came from large three-dimensional sculpture. People, especially kids, just love to touch them. When I had the opportunity of touching some antiquity (under the guidance of museum staff), I have found the opportunity magically enhanced my understanding of the sculpture. You can feel where the sharp lines are, where the surface undulate subtly, and where the plane curve inward beyond the eyesight. An oversized podium may help increase the distance between objects and the visitors, sometimes undesirable, or simply station some staff nearby is quite effective.
Right at 5:15, I didn’t see the blue wave at the lobby near the entrance of the 5th ave. Instead I saw the crowd of visitors, like flocks of sheep, being herded. At the time I wrote this blog, perhaps only a few were now standing inside the Met. It will be a totally different scene when the lights go off and the crowds disappear: occasionally I was at such off-hour galleries for classes, which at least fill the rooms with a few living things. When you can hear the echo of your words in the gallery, it takes some time to get used to the emptiness even though the galleries are in fact filled with the same treasure. Perhaps as not many enjoy watching movies in empty cinemas, crowds and security guards are an integral part of a museum visit. It is from them you overhear their stupid (or you think stupid) comments or with whom you play “catch me if you can” when cameras are not allowed for some special exhibitions. Most of all, it is with them we breathe the living air and realize the purpose of all the things here: to be enjoyed and appreciated by you and me.