Can you be invisible at the Museum?

I’m once again so backlogged with numerous museum stories, that I could easily fill a month of posts. I could, but I won’t. I know how hard it is to keep on top of all the reading that’s required of us bloggers.

Don’t worry I’m not going to tell you how bloody awful it was to have to give out plastic bags on Earth Day, or that Richard Gere popped in last weekend, that’s too boring. This post is about the invisible people at the museum – people I’ve wanted to tell you about for a long time – and because this is the last day of National Poetry Month, I end with a poem.

Tell me, when you go to a Museum do you ever notice the men and women patiently standing to the side watching-you-watching-the-art?

A Museum cannot function without those invisible folks.

Judy who has worked in the museum for about a quarter century, always sings a love song about roses to me

Have you ever spoken to a security guard in a museum?

I don’t mean yell at them because they asked you to please not stand so close to the art, or made you take your large backpack to the coat check, or reminded you that you can’t drink your coffee in the museum.

Be honest.

A large percentage of the guards at our museum are artists, and musicians; many are studying for post-grad degrees;   some who worked in highly skilled jobs in their birth countries discovered that their work experience doesn’t count over here.

Meet a few of them:

*

Justice, a female guard in her thirties who previously just sang in her church choir, was accepted at the Julliard school in New York last year.

Shel

*

This is Shel.

His wife, sister-in-law and her three-year-old daughter were in the Air India plane (from Canada to England) that blew up off the Irish coast in 1985.

Many years ago Shel and I had a lovely “visit” with Ben Kingsley at my cash register, and later that month we did a puppet show for Axel Rose.  🙂

*

In an earlier post I mentioned Wazir, who was a linguistics professor in  Afghanistan.

Wazir

You’d love his stories: “When I told the man, ‘Please don’t touch the art,’ he said, ‘Why not? My hands are clean. I just washed them with soap.’ ”

One day an American tourist told him “You’re not pure American if you speak more than one language.”

*

*Martha and Irma sitting in the break room

Martha and Irma (on the left) have both worked as security guards for about eight years.

Martha was a hairdresser for thirty years, but had to retire because of problems with her thumbs [from repetitive use]. Irma was a stay at home mother.

They met at the Museum.  “We’re best of friends, who feel like sisters.”

*

*Ajit

Another guard who tells wonderful stories, is Ajit. His family home in India is a large fort with a moat around it.

“My great-great-great grandfather, Maharaja Singh, made a treaty with the Britishers in 1750,” he told me.

Ajit joined the Indian army in 1963, and was Lord Mount Batten’s Liaison officer in 1966.

*

and finally the poem, Museum Guard  by David Hernandez

My condolences to the man dressed
for a funeral, sitting bored
on a gray folding chair, the zero

of his mouth widening in a yawn.
No doubt he's pictured himself inside
a painting or two around his station,

stealing a plump green grape
from the cluster hanging above
the corkscrew locks of Dionysus,

or shooting arrows at rosy-cheeked cherubs
hiding behind a woolly cloud.
With time limping along

like a Bruegel beggar, no doubt
he's even seen himself taking the place
of the one crucified: the black spike

of the minute hand piercing his left palm,
the hour hand penetrating the right,
nailed forever to one spot.

From A House Waiting for Music by David Hernandez. Copyright © 2003 

 David Hernandez who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, 
is the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship 
in Poetry.

You may recognize his name. Last year I shared his poem Mosul
which begins:
"The donkey. The donkey pulling the cart" 

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About dearrosie

We think we need so much, when all we really need is time to breathe. Come walk with me, put one foot in front of the other, and get to know yourself. Please click the link to my blog - below - and leave me a comment. I love visitors.
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43 Responses to Can you be invisible at the Museum?

  1. sonali says:

    I’m happy to meet the staff at your Museum. Someday, I may visit your museum and hello all of them. They will have so many interesting stories to share like how you too have. Mr Ajit hails from my homeland, and he works at the museum there and he meets you and you meet me. How coincindental. Have a good day Rose! 🙂

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello Sonali,
      It would be my pleasure to welcome you to my museum and introduce you to everyone. There are quite a few security guards from your country, I just included two in this post.

      I love your gravatar photo of you in the ocean. Where do you live?

      I like the way your sentence went in a circle:
      “Mr Ajit hails from my homeland, and he works at the museum there and he meets you and you meet me.”

      • sonali says:

        Thank you Rosie. I am from Goa India. A coastal place famous for the beaches. The gravatar photo speaks for it. But I currently work in a software industry, away from home. In a land-locked state in India.

  2. magsx2 says:

    Hi,
    It sounds like you have some wonderful people that work with you at the museum, and very interesting as well. So many talented people. I loved your slide show, and very good posture shown by Charles and Mark. 🙂

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Mags,
      This is just a small handful of the security guards. I think there are at least one hundred and fifty or two hundred of them. They work 24/7 so I don’t always see them every day.

      I didn’t mention Ajit’s posture. He learned to stand very regally when he was in the Indian Army. I’ve been trying to stand straight chest out, but it’s so easy to slouch when you’re tired and you’ve been standing all day!

  3. Junie Moon says:

    we, the people of the world is thirsty for stories of people. not money. or power. or doctored celebrities. we is hungry for the people in the margins. the ones who speak true. the ones who keep things straight. we is, isn’t we?

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello Junie Moon,
      Welcome to my blog.

      I agree with you that we the people are thirsty for stories of real folks, those people who speak the truth… I love how you expressed it.

  4. What a courageous man Shel is, to carry on after losing three loved ones in a single airline crash. I can only imagine how difficult living with so much grief can be…

    Oh yes, I’ve often spoken to a security guards in museums, usually to ask a dumb question, and most of them are very nice about it. I try not to distract them from their jobs with a lot of casual conversation, but some seem to be free to talk and are eager to share some of the knowledge they’ve absorbed about the artwork in their galleries. Thanks for introducing some of the guards who work in your museum. Every one of them has an interesting story and you are good at finding them and sharing them, Rosie!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Barbara,
      Shel is a very courageous man and even though he’s gone through such a heartbreaking tragedy, he’s always smiling.

      Standing next to the art all day every day the guards learn a lot about the paintings, and are happy to share what they know if you ask them.

  5. What lovely coworkers! I think there is something special that must happen to people being in an environment geared to enlightenment! Our at least “lightening the load” we carry with us. Art does transport us somewhere else. I am sure you’ve met a lot of very interesting people…a puppet show for Axel Rose. Now that’s a story unto itself 🙂 Debra

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Debra,
      Its good if the guards are able to absorb some of the beauty, and feel enlightened after standing and staring at paintings all day. That has to be one of the most exhausting jobs I know. Have you ever stood in one spot, on an un-carpeted floor, for an entire day?

      When Shel and I did the puppet show (it was with a large dragon puppet) neither of us knew who our audience was, but when we chatted with Ben Kingsley we both recognized him. Shel addressed him with a “Hello Ghandi” and he didn’t mind.

      I very often chat with the “stranger” at my cash register and when they leave one of my co-worker’s will say, “Ohmygod do you know who that was?” and I don’t know.

      • I understand that Rosie. That would be me! I’ve been in elevators or had dinner sitting next to a celebrity, and I’m the last to know! And to answer your question about standing in one spot…no, I haven’t! That would be very hard and I’m sure it is exhausting!

  6. souldipper says:

    I love being surprised by people we too easily walk right by! What lives your fellow employees have led…what dignity they bring to their position!

    The man who was Commissioner for the Hong Kong Police – for years – retired to our little island just about the time Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese. He could be seen on his hands and knees, pulling weeds and clipping bushes, dressed in sweat pants and colorful gloves.

    As always – delightful, Rosie.

    Oh, and a note to them, please: All of you – tell management you all need some decent coffee and tea to drink on your breaks!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Amy,
      I look forward to hearing whether you notice the invisible folks next time you’re at a museum.

      Love your tale of the Commissioner for the Hong Kong Police digging in his garden on your island.

      As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I’m backlogged with way too many stories one of which is the update to the coffee story. Not to worry all is well – they brought the decent coffee back to the breakrooms so I don’t have to fight with the coffee nazi ever again!

  7. Eve Redwater says:

    I think this is wonderful! Like I’ve had a personal guided tour to the museum. 🙂

  8. Sybil says:

    Thank you for introducing these wonderful people to us.

    I am saddened by the visitors comment about true Americans speaking only one language.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Sybil,
      I’m glad to hear you enjoyed meeting some of the workers at my museum. There are people from many different countries working in the security department. It was lots of fun listening to the conversations during the soccer World Cup

      It was a very sad comment especially as the visitor was talking to Wazir who is highly educated and speaks at least four languages.

  9. munchow says:

    It’s so much more interesting to learn about the invisible people at the museum instead of some account about Richard Gere popping by. Thanks for letting us get to know them. It’s almost like a tour within a tour. Great post!

    • dearrosie says:

      I’m so happy to know you enjoyed the tour Otto… I’ve wanted to write a post about the security guards at the museum ever since I first started blogging. I’m glad to know you agree with me. Heck if you want to know what Richard Gere is doing you can read “People” magazine.

  10. Val says:

    I only speak one language, so I guess I must be American! 😉
    My mother, who was a sculptor, detested places where people weren’t allowed to touch sculpture. She believed that sculpture had to be touched to be appreciated. I’m with her, too. Though I suppose I understand (up to a point) why it shouldn’t be… sort of.

    Do blind people in the USA get to touch sculpture in museums and galleries? Here in the UK, I believe they are the only people who are allowed to do so.

    I love your stories of the ‘invisible’ people at your museum. Here, most of the guards, etc, wouldn’t be allowed to speak to people apart from in their professional capacity. Very stuffy here.

    • dearrosie says:

      My dear Val,
      What a wonderful surprise to see you here again. I’ve missed you dear friend. I hope you’re feeling much better.

      I guess you can now call yourself an American 🙂

      I really don’t know whether blind people are allowed to touch our sculptures. I’ll ask tomorrow and let you know.

      A few years ago a marble sculpture was placed in a heavy traffic area frequented by staff and we were asked to touch it every time we walked by because the exhibition department wanted a nice layer of greasy finger prints on it. The idea was to show the public how the oil on our fingers actually damages the marble.

      I’m sorry to hear that the guards in your part of the world aren’t allowed to chat with tourists.

      I saw a very funny TV segment last year during the build-up to the Royal Wedding where an American comedian (I can’t remember who it was) tried to chat to a guard at Buckingham Palace and convince him to allow him inside for tea with Her Majesty. The guard looked straight ahead the entire time and didn’t bat an eye, even though it was funny.

  11. I think the poem is beautiful, and I always love your posts about the museum guards.. I totally remember Wazir, the guard from Afghanistan! I’m very moved at the wide range and variety of people who do this quiet, dignified work. And I always love your writing…

    • dearrosie says:

      Dear Betty,
      The poem is lovely isn’t it. I don’t know which museum he was at because our guards aren’t allowed to sit down.

      I’ve wanted to write about the security guards ever since I started my blog. I have an enormous amount of respect for those men and women. It is unbelievably exhausting to stand on one spot on a hard un-carpeted floor all day, and they sometimes do it for 12 hour shifts.

  12. shoreacres says:

    When the most recent King Tut exhibit was at the Houston Museum (not all the gold, but the sarcophagi, household items and such) there was a sarcophagus for a cat. I believe the kitty belonged to the Steward of King Tut’s household. I wanted to touch it in the worst way – I just couldn’t get over it.

    I told the guard next to it I wasn’t going to touch it, but that I wanted to, and I wondered what would happen if I did. He never cracked a smile, but said, ‘You simply will disappear. There will be no trace of you left. It will be very sad.” And then he laughed!

    i do love the hidden people, the invisible people – the ones who are all around us, filled with humor, wisdom and awareness we rarely glimpse!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Linda
      Thanks for sharing your kitty at the King Tut exhibition story. I think it’s wonderful when someone doing such a boring job still has a sense of humor.

      I love your last sentence! That’s exactly what I was hoping to share.

  13. Priya says:

    I began by feeling sad for the guards. But, after having read all of the comments and your responses to them, I feel relieved. You’ve given your readers an important reminder, Rosie. And it is such a delightful thing to know that your readers have happily accepted it.

    I’ve sometimes wondered at the pertinence of not accepting the experience of immigrants as being ‘useful’ in their adopted countries. And have felt sorry for the people who nevertheless have to live in those adopted countries, never being able to practise their original profession.

    Beautifully presented post. Thank you. And for the poem, too.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello Priya,
      The guards have a boring job but it’s a job with benefits like a health plan which is so important in this country.

      I’m happy to know you enjoyed the post and the poem. I was interested to read in the poem that the security guard is sitting down. I’ve always seen them standing at any museum I’ve gone to. I wonder where he saw guards sitting down? Do they have chairs at Indian museums?

      It’s very sad when you meet people who were teachers and lawyers in their countries but when they move here they aren’t able to carry on with their professions.
      I know a massage therapist who was a Naturopathic Doctor in India, but she can’t practice here until she takes the California exam and she doesn’t feel confident enough to take the exam so …. She gives an excellent massage.

      • Priya says:

        All the museums I’ve been to here in India do have wood-board chairs for the guards to sit down. But the job must be taxing nevertheless, because of the general working conditions — immense heat, no AC, irritating visitors…

        I am glad I was here, replying to the comments on my blog, and I was able to see this response of yours. I was wondering about what you think of the change in professions people have to live with in a different country. Maybe I’ll never leave India for this reason alone…

      • dearrosie says:

        I’m also glad you replied while I was still here. It’s almost as though we’re chatting on “real time”.

        I find it most interesting that security guards are able to sit down in your museums.

        How can art work survive more than a few years when there’s no AC? Our galleries are kept very cool to protect the paintings and tapestries on the walls. When I work in the Satellite stores I always bring extra sweaters and wear long pants and socks even in the summer because it’s so cold in the museum.

        When you move to another country you always have to re-take the professional exam whether you’re a doctor, lawyer or an architect who just moves from Canada to the United States; and I think that also applies to teachers!

  14. I try and be so respectful and in compliance when I go to any museum but when at the Met last, even though I KNEW not to use my flash when taking a photo, I truly forgot to turn off the setting, clicked a snapshot, and the flash went off. I was reprimanded. Appropriately so. I apologized to the guard and spent the next hour feeling badly. I really dislike when museum visitors don’t heed the rules and here I was, one of them. While I understand the need for guards, it is a shame that we need them. Val said it best. Hi Val!

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello EOS,
      Not many people apologize. I’m sure the guards at the Met were glad to meet you. It is a shame we need guards but if we didn’t have them, it’s a fact that people would damage the artwork. They do it even with the guards standing next to them.
      In order to prevent valuable paintings from being damaged they’re often placed behind glass and sometimes (like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre) even have a roped area in front of them.

      Nice to see Val back eh?

  15. Thanks for sharing with us the invincible yet rich and interesting people of the museum. These characters are real with a fascinating life stories to tell. It’s so easy to look passed a person when in a museum or any amusement facility. After this post, we’ll have a different perspective of things. And I think it’ll make us into better, more sensitive person. Thanks…

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Island Traveler,
      I’m delighted to know that you enjoyed reading about the rich, interesting world of the museum – and by rich I don’t mean the *art* – though with the recent sale of Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel “The Scream” for one hundred and twenty million (the highest auction price ever paid for a work of art) and to an unknown telephone bidder [!] I’m left wondering how any museum will be able to still purchase art for their walls.

  16. wightrabbit says:

    What a fascinating peek behind the scenes of your museum – I love the elements of human interest that you always bring into your posts, Rosie. Thank you for introducing us to your colleagues and sharing their fascinating stories! 🙂 I have spoken to security staff in art galleries but they weren’t very forthcoming. Maybe they thought I was distracting them, while my partner in crime stole a painting? 😉

    • dearrosie says:

      As a blogger sharing stories of my little world at a museum in S. California it gives me much pleasure to learn that someone like yourself, someone who lives so far away, enjoys my tales. Thank you.

      You know I wonder whether security guards in British museums aren’t as chatty as our guards because English people are more reserved?

  17. aFrankAngle says:

    Outstanding tribute to these people and what they do! … Oh, no … i haven’t asked them questions, but maybe I will now!

  18. Kathy says:

    How wonderful that you highlighted the invisible ones. Every one of us has a valuable precious story to tell, sometimes simply by our being. Thank you, Rosie.

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello Kathy,
      I think the invisible ones are going to wonder what happened when all the people walking through museums stop and say “good day mate” to them.

  19. Jo says:

    Don’t ever “retire”, Wondering Rose!!
    I love these tales & tributes & tidbits, so insightfully relayed.
    The post by Junie Moon says it all.
    The reason why we keep coming back for more!

    • dearrosie says:

      I thank you for taking the time to write this lovely encouraging comment Jo.
      I hope Junie Moon comes back and sees that someone else appreciated her words.

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