“They call us guards, warders, invigilators, room keepers, gallery assistants.” So begins Chloe Aridjis’ new gothic novel Asunder about a museum guard in London’s National Gallery and her overly stimulated imagination, displayed in what The New York Times called the narrator’s “carefully observed solitude.”
“I have come to know all the paintings and panels better than the palm of my hand,” she continues, and then reveals that despite initial job interview questions about dealing with the boredom of being a museum guard, that she doesn’t get bored. “I will simply draw up lists in my head or count the number of skirts or stripes in the room.”
The subject of museum guard comes up everywhere lately, even in the recent film Museum Hours, which feels part documentary and part feature film, set at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Library quiet and languidly paced, Museum Hours is presumably about a guard and the visitor he befriends, but feels much more like a meditation on modern Vienna and a representation of the artworks we get to gaze at throughout by the likes of Rembrandt and Bruegel.
I recently had the chance to chat briefly with one of our younger guards. At 30, Carrie Buckles has been at PEM seven years and is excited by all things Japanese, including our collection. She was particularly happy to be working one afternoon in our special exhibition Future Beauty, Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion.
When Swiss artist Marianne Mueller was here as part of our FreePort Series, she created a 2013 calendar featuring portraits of our guards. Buckles, with her signature red lipstick, made the cover.
I was pleased to hear Buckles say she passes the hours by keeping a little notebook in her guard uniform pocket where she can write, sometimes about the inspiring things unfolding in the galleries before her and would like one day to turn this journal into a book. On this particular day, she pulled out a slim little collection of Chinese and Japanese verse called The Zen of Poetry.
Boredom is the number one thing people assume will creep into the existence of a museum guard. In their special museums section last spring, The New York Times even profiled guards at museums around the country on this very topic and methods for combating it, to which, gallery yoga was one of the answers.
“…Some museum visitors might see guards, so often silent and stone-faced, as more machine than human. That is a misconception. Many guards…speak with obvious passion about the exhibitions, as well as the visitors, for which they feel responsible.”
An artist in Russia has paired guards with certain paintings that give off an eerie likeness in a project called Guardians of Russian Art Museums. In his artist statement, Andy Freeberg says:
“In the art museums of Russia, women sit in the galleries and guard the collections. When you look at the paintings and sculptures, the presence of the women becomes an inherent part of viewing the artwork itself.”
Further in the book Asunder, the author discusses the sound of various types of shoes on the wooden gallery floors.
“Whenever I felt like detaching myself from what was around me, rather than listen for shoes I’d try to block out all sound and focus on the reflections of visitors in the polished wood floors.”
Our heroine Marie is the great-granddaughter of a museum guard who — on his watch — could not stop a suffragist from damaging a precious painting of Venus, protesting the beautiful figure’s imprisonment as being similar to the plight of British women in 1914. Marie feels haunted by this woman who suffered in prison for the crime.
In the meantime, her boredom is allayed by what she overhears, while guarding. She is transfixed by a tour with an art restorer on the topic of cracks that radiate from aging paintings.
“Days after the art restorer’s visit those three syllables — cra-que-lure — continued to rumble in my head. The allure of the crack, the lure of the crackle, the lair of the kraken…”