Sunday, January 23, 2022

Who is Essential to a Museum?

Arguably, the most important people in a public museum are not the Director nor the Curators. It is the security guards who keep the collections safe. They make sure that the art isn’t stolen. While this is a relatively rare occurrence, that I have written about recently, it is just as important in that the art is not harmed. When there is a shortage of guards, as with the Covid crisis, galleries have to be closed and the public does not have access to what they came to see.

Fred Wilson “Guarded View

We took our son when he was about 3 years old to a museum where their most recent acquisition was a sculpture by Bernini. To impress their public even more they put it on a stone plinth about 4 or 5 feet high. Hunter went up to the plinth and as soon as he touched it the guard came rushing over to chastise us saying “Do you know how much that sculpture cost, --one million dollars!” Yes, that was a lot of money for the time. It was somewhat amusing since we knew full well, our child wasn’t doing any harm, but the guard was right and that was his job.

There can be the malevolent visitor who wants to mar or destroy a work of art but most of these issues occur out of ignorance or by accident. Even just touching some objects gently can cause damage from the oil on our hands.

What started me on this tack was a recent headline in the New York Times article by Colin Moynihan, “The Met Increases Its Pay to Guards to Address Covid-Related Shortages”. As we all have read this is an issue in many fields, worst of all, in the case of nurses.

Duane Hanson, “Museum Guard

In the article it stated that Met guards starting salary had been $15.51 an hour and was being raised to $16.50 per hour. (A spokesperson for the Museum said that the average salary was now $20/hour.) Surprising to me was that at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the starting salary was $21.65. This is a lot better, but still, what does that amount to in a year? Assuming a 40 hour week, 52 weeks a year a MOMA guard annual salary would be $45,032 a year, and at the Met’s $16.50/hour, $34,320. Renting a decent 2-bedroom apartment in or near New York City can cost $2500 a month which adds up to $30,000 a year. In Manhattan the average is over $4,000 a month. So how many additional jobs does a guard need to take.

According to an article by Aaron Short in Hyperallergic written 3 years ago, in New York museum security guards not only have to be on their feet for 4 to 8 hours a day, but also carry 25 pounds trudging up and down stairs, bend, jump and run into action if a situation occurs. They are also required to inspect bags and packages at the entrance to the museum and collect coats etc. in the coat rooms.

My wife, the curator, always stressed the importance of guards as the main interface of the public with the museum. A guard is the first, and possibly only, staff person visitors will engage with, and it helps if they can answer their basic questions, at least direct them to the gallery that they are looking for. Something I had not automatically thought of was the child wandering off while their parents are studying a work of art and the guard needs to reunite them!

At the Metropolitan Museum

These days with more and more digital technology guards may be asked to take shifts in a security control room watching monitors to be able to see various locations in case they need another guard to find out what is going on in a given gallery. Guards carry radios on which to communicate. This maybe easier now that we are familiar with cell phones, but do you never have a problem with your cell phone? For those who have advanced training they will get additional pay, but they have to cover the expenses of the training.

After a long day with a guard’s duties, I doubt I would be able to take a second job to fill the gap between living expenses and current museum pay.

Russian Guard
Photo by Andy Freedberg

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