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Habitat: Museum Guards

Allen Accoo, Lisa Richardson, and Terry Parker, staff at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in front of Adam Pendleton’s Collected (Flamingo George), 2009.

Allen Accoo, Lisa Richardson, and Terry Parker, security staff at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in front of Adam Pendleton’s Collected (Flamingo George), 2009.

Without museum guards, museums couldn’t exist—it’s as simple as that. For our Crime issue, we turned the spotlight on the people who not only act as key players in the implementation of an institution’s security system, protecting works from theft and damage, but also perform a critical role in the museum-going experience.  

Museum security, above all, abides by Murphy’s Law. “If you think it’s not going to happen, it’s going to happen. You have to expect the unexpected,” said Pat Natale, director of security at the New Museum in New York. The 2013 show “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” included an artwork made up of multiple gold bars, so the museum had beefed up security—there were armed guards, panic alarms, motion detectors, audible alarms, and even fake walls. “In the end, the security protocol became as much a part of the piece as the piece itself,” Natale said.

Going a step further, Dick Drent, former corporate security manager at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, codeveloped a new form of security for the institution in 2013 based on a type of observational analysis called the ORRI Methodology, which uses elements of predictive profiling (an evaluation of whether a person, object, or situation poses a threat). Drent considers the role of a museum guard to be a proactive one: “We prevent things from happening before they happen,” he said.

But museum guards often transcend their roles as silent watchdogs, and many institutions encourage their security staff to engage in a dialogue with visitors about the art. “When I first came here, the philosophy was that the museum security officers were to be like the statues,” said Christopher Kunkel, head of security and safety services at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “Security officers were supposed to stand along the walls and say nothing to anyone.” That isolation taught him that a more involved approach can enhance a visitor’s experience, and he implemented a system in which guards engage more with the public.

The many hours guards spend with the art can result in an unusual degree of familiarity. Linda Harris, who has worked as a guard at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia for 14 years, often finds she can recite the sound tracks of the video art in the galleries she patrols. “When they finish installing, I stand there and memorize the piece. I only have to look at it a couple of times,” she said. “When we had an exhibition of Kalup Linzy’s work [in 2010], I felt like I had a whole audience to work with. I sat there until I memorized each of the voices in his video.”

The job is a kind of endurance test. Guards are on their feet during busy openings, events, and slow days alike, which requires both physical and mental stamina. As Chad Lawrence, who works as a guard at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., noted, “It’s a solitary position, and you really have to feel comfortable being inside your head for long stretches of time. For some, it can be incredibly draining.”

A common theme among the guards I spoke to was a deep appreciation of the art they protect, and it’s worth recalling that many artists have done stints in museum security. Artist Ellen Siebers, a gallery attendant at Dia:Chelsea, watched the paintings of Robert Ryman—who was himself a guard at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1950s—go up on the walls for a recent Ryman exhibition. “There’s another level of intimacy with the work when you see how it’s installed,” she said. “As a painter, having time to finally learn all the little things that you can’t really find in texts is great.”

Dia has a long tradition of artists serving as attendants; Amy Gartrell, Nate Lowman, and Jeremy Sigler have all worked there. Siebers’s colleague J. Soto, a performance artist, feels his artistic practice informs his role as a gallery attendant. “I think it plays into an idea of time, and witnessing how guests view the work and move through the space,” he said. “There’s a kind of mental endurance and long-term, durational presence that’s required to stay in tune with the work and the space.”

Guards also serve as the eyes and ears of the curatorial staff, acting as intermediaries between the exhibitions and curatorial departments. K. Shannon Ali, director of visitor services at the Studio Museum in Harlem, likes to keep things in the family. “When I first came to the museum, they had a few officers and contracted security, and I immediately got rid of the contracted security,” she said. “When guards are hired through the institution itself, they have a vested interest.”

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