What Do You DoI'm an art museum
A museum guard talks night shifts, haunted wings and cultural patrimony, as part of Hopes&Fears' anonymous interview series.
I’ve worked at the museum for eight years, and I did days for five of those. When an opening came up on the night crew, I jumped on it.
I see so much more of the building than I did during the day. I check all these access tunnels and maintenance hatches that I’d never been into. There’s crazy shit in the building that I’d had no idea was there.
I studied art history in school and like art a lot, which is why I’ve stuck with the museum for so long because I get to see it all, walk through the galleries, look at the sculptures and paintings. When the museum gets work on loan, I can check it out before anyone.
Maria is a Moscow-based illustrator, who has worked with Playboy magazine, and online publications like The Village and Wonderzine
An average night
Second shift comes on at midnight and gets off at eight. I get my assignment for the night and relieve the guard who’s already there. Sometimes you’re outside the building checking delivery trucks coming into the garage or controlling the door. It’s a union job, we have guaranteed breaks and we make sure we know who’s in and out of the building at any time.
When you’re inside, you’ve got your spot and then you patrol.
Everything’s covered at all times. There’s always someone at every place. It’s very much like being a sentry in the army. We make sure there are no gaps anywhere. Since the museum’s all shut up tight at night, and there’s no way in or out, you don’t really need a lot of people in the building. Everyone’s asleep, basically, and we’re just there in case something horrible happens.
We communicate with the command people who run this whole cool brain center, and they know what’s going on everywhere, and they have cameras. But we’re the other eyes. Theoretically, they could probably run the place from the command center with the cameras and the magnetic door locks that they can control. But it’s really about having a set of eyes walking around that’s important. Because we know what things look like normally, and we know when something’s different. On a rainy day, one of the big things is checking for leaks. It’s an old building with a lot of different parts from different ages, and sometimes there’s a drip. It’s really important to check those to make sure nothing’s could get on the art. Or if there’s a pipe leaking,it’s important. Think about it — if no one had checked that, it could run for eight hours. The things we have in the museum are very delicate. Imagine water running into the cases full of 600-year-old Chinese silk paintings. They would be absolutely destroyed.
And then there are little things. A lot of our contractors come in at night, so we escort them because they always have to have a guard with them. You chat with them a little bit… they’re all really chill dudes. I always kind of envied them. Men with useful skills, they really parlay that into something great.
Everything’s covered at all times. There’s always someone at every place. It’s very much like being a sentry in the army.
MY FAVORITE POST is patrolling the contemporary art galleries. I really enjoy checking out a completely silent gallery that’s absolutely empty. The museum is pretty full during the days, and it’s hard to look at things, especially on a busy day.
Because they degrades certain materials, the lights are on timers after the building closes. In the newer galleries, there’s a cleaning light that you can turn on. The janitors clean all the floors; they polish everything.So it’s really cool if you go into, say, the central hallway in Greek art, when the cleaning lights are on. The ambient lights go down, but the spotlights stay on the statues, so you can walk through the darkened gallery with these highlighted Roman copies of Greek statues. The Asian art patio has a moonroof and I can actually see it under the moon. It’s very serene, especially when it’s empty. I feel like I’ve gotten to see a lot of stuff at night in light conditions that you couldn’t see during the day, and that adds to the beauty of it all.
There is a de Kooning painting that we have, which I love. It’s the finest painting. There’s this bright turquoise blue streak in it. There’s something about that particular color blue; it’s like a swimming pool in California on a sunny day. I always stop and look at that one painting. That one color, it’s totally unique.
We know what things look like normally, and we know when something’s different.
IT STARTED when I was posted in Roman art one day and I was looking at the state head of Marcus Aurelius, an emperor, but also a great follower of stoic philosophy. The wall text mentioned his book The Meditations, which is basically in the style of Daily Affirmations. But the book survives. It’s a wonderful book — the guy who’s running the Roman empire is reminding himself that he’s going to die someday, and he should really be more humble. I started reading into that book, and it was like, well, I read that, now I’ve gotta read this. It kept going, mushrooming.
I sit at the post normally. Standing’s too much. I read. It’s not officially allowed, but… with a wink and a nudge. The really important thing is not to be asleep, whatever you have to do to stay awake. The whole job is staying alert. As long as you’re with it, you’re on the post, they look the other way. I pride myself on almost never nodding off. It happens to everybody occasionally, but it’s also why you usually have a partner on your post, because if you conk out, they wake you up.
A couple of months ago, I was reading the Egyptian Book of the Dead. We have one in the Egyptian section of the museum. They’ve got the whole scroll unrolled along the wall, and the whole thing’s illustrated. The Book of the Dead is not a single canonical text; it’s a collection of spells, and it’s different based on who commissioned it. Reading the book, each spell is a section, and it’s describing a different state.
Now on my breaks, I can look at the Book of the Dead, and I can read the drawings. I know what’s happening as I’m going across, what each stage is without having to read the explanations anymore. There are moments of condensed cross-cultural pollination — Ezra Pound talks about Western European cultures being a Medievaltrunkwith successive washes of Classicism. Going through the Medieval galleries at night, I can see that, now. It really makes sense.
The problem I have with reading — and I think this is really endemic of the digital era — it’s really easy to acquire cultural entities to consume, and it’s not easy to consume them, because there’s no way to shorten the amount of time it actually requires to read something. I don’t know how people do it who don’t have as much time to read as I do. Even now, I have a job that allows me to read at my job because it keeps me alert. And I still feel like I don’t have enough time.
The building is strangely full of people, despite being so huge. They’re all working like oompa loompas to get everything polished and ready for the next day. But, depending on where you are, you might be quite a ways from the next person. And you end up by yourself for hours at a time.
There are certain areas of the museum where I get the heebie jeebies when I walk through at night.
The offices are especially creepy. On one floor of offices -- every time I go up there, my hackles get raised immediately. I get the jibblies so hard when I get there, and it’s always that one spot.
Generally speaking, the period rooms at night really weird me out. Especially the French period rooms which are lit almost exactly the same as that room originally was. And since they also have this frozen-in-time quality, it feels as though the people have just left the room. They’re in the kitchen, but they’re going to come back in just a second.
I had a semi-supernatural experience in that gallery one time. I was by myself, and I swear to God, I heard this sound, it sounded like crumpling, like something was falling off. So I stopped and wondered, “Did something just fall off the wall?” That doesn’t make any sense; everything is bolted to the wall. It’s not, “Oh, we have this vase that costs a billion dollars. Let’s just set it on a shelf.” No. Everything is bolted down, so you couldn’t steal something if you tried. You’d have to go with a power drill, and there’s sometimes a security lock, too. But it was such a distinct sound, I’d never heard it before, and I’ve never heard it since. I froze, it was really dark, and I got that feeling. I had to just move out of the gallery. I kept going.
And then later, somebody told me how one time they were going through there and heard, very distinctly, a man cough in the room. They figured it was one of the janitors, but there was no one around.
There’s a whole collection of stories. There’s a room in the American Wing that a lot of people avoid if they can help it because people have seen the cradle rocking at night, apparently. And they get this very intense feeling when they’re inside. It’s funny, because the offices where I get the heebie jeebies from are directly above that. One of the people who’s been there for a long time was telling me that it was a storage area before they turned them into offices. And people used to hear voices up there at night. I’ve never had something like that happen.
There’s a room in the American Wing that a lot of people avoid if they can help it because people have seen the cradle rocking at night.
The first week I was there, I was trying to provoke all the ghosts as best I could, you know. Nothing really happened, but I did have a very strange experience one night in the cafeteria. I was taking a break, I was having a little nap — it keeps you fresh, ten minutes or so — and I had this waking dream where I was sitting in the seat I was sleeping in, and there was a person talking to me, behind me. I don’t remember anything they said, but at some point, they touched me and I could feel the hand behind me. And that was when I woke up. I was leaned against a wall at the time, so there was no way a person could have been behind me.
I really dig paranormal supernatural-type stuff. But I don’t think it ever occurs at face value. However, the idea of ghosts is definitely a very real thing for the mind, it’s very much how we think. To say that an object exudes some kind of ectoplasmic whatever – that is never something I would say because that’s bunk, really.
We never think there’s an actual magical-mystical-supernatural power in the pyramids. But the sum total of the man-hours that had to go into building the things! It's literally thousands of people hauling bricks for possibly dozens or hundreds of years to build these things. All that energy is locked within. I don't think there is physically an energy there, a quantifiable thing, but the stones themselves are actually the vessel of that effort. They are the manifestation of that effort. That stuff wouldn’t be there. The pyramid is the condensed version of the Pharaoh’s reign, it’s the leftovers. It’s like they’ve shed their skin, the husk of them.
There’s this thing from Hegel, the pre-ontological night where severed body parts and monstrosities and ancient mythical monsters are always an amalgamation of pieces of different things. In the pre-ontological blur, before your brain can sort out the things and put them in their categories, you just end up with a pile of stuff. Things begin to overflow their categories, and form breaks down into sheer matter with fragments of form. That’s terror.
You end up by yourself for hours at a time.
The offices are especially creepy.
of the job
I was reading a thing about the Google book scanning project, and when they first started out, the two Google guys, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, they were talking to the Stanford librarian, I believe, about digitizing the books, and he asked them what will happen to this when Google doesn’t exist anymore? And they didn’t have an answer because they assumed that Google would be around forever, which I think we also do. But the librarian, the kind of person who knows about this, knows that books don’t last forever. What happens when the media… is disrupted heavily somehow?
Reading Classical books is really interesting, because a lot of things we know about early Greek poets are actually gleaned exclusively from quotations by later, but still ancient, grammarians. Sappho, particularly, is praised by name in Plato as one of the finest of the poets. But none of her actual books survive anymore, except in fragments.
I get a real thrill out of how the fact that just a couple of years ago, they were able to put together a complete Sappho poem. I think this might be the only example of one that might be theoretically complete. They got it out of fragments of papyrus that were used to stuff a mummy in Egypt. It’s funny that now we have to claw through ancient garbage heaps and dig the packing out of dead bodies to find bits of this beautiful lyrical poetry, which is otherwise completely lost to time.
I joke to my friends when I go to their parties and don’t drink any beer like a weird guy, and leave at eleven to go to work. I’m like, “Don’t worry, guys, I’m going to protect all those paintings for you.”
Everyone else gets to go to sleep, and we stay awake to make sure the cultural patrimony of the city is still intact.
A night watchman's reading list
1. Brian Evenson
A collection of stories called Windeye
2. Marcus Aurelius
3. Ezra Pound
4. The Egyptian Book of The Dead
5. James George Frazer
The Golden Bough
6. The works of Plato
7. The fragments of Sappho