Ever come across a fun or interesting security guard at an art museum? Here’s my encounter with a security guard at the Art Institute of Chicago sharing her love of tiny details of paintings, encouraging visitors to get closer to the artworks.
After spending about ten minutes with a post-impressionist painting, over to the right on the other side of the doorway, hung a small monochrome van Gogh painting of a worker standing in front of her shed. The dull colors of this painting contrasted with Anquetin’s bright palette.
While gazing upon this van Gogh, and appreciating the heavy brushwork on a such small canvas, a security guard was making quite a fun scene with another post-Impressionist painting by Georges Lemmen, about 20 feet to the right. The painting is made of a bunch of bespeckled dots, pointillism style.
The guard is an older woman who spoke slowly, softly, and with love. She directed a visitor to take photographs of particular parts of the Lemmen painting.
“Now here, take your camera and photograph this section down here in the corner.”
“Now get very very close. Closer. Bring your camera closer.”
“Get the details. There you go.”
She continued to direct the visitor…
“Now move your camera up over to her shoulder.”
“Up up, a little more up. Now a little more down. There. Closer. Now. Yes. Yes.”
“Now look at the image on your camera. Yes, yes, zoom in. Now look at all that color. See the rich layering of color? Isn’t that amazing?!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A security guard who was ENCOURAGING a visitor to get CLOSER to a painting with their phone. At this point a good crowd started to gather around to see what the guard was pointing in this painting. I stood at a distance totally busting up, not believing what I was seeing.
“Now here. Take a picture of this part here on the painting, right at her breast.”
It started like it was going to get strange, but it wasn’t intended that way.
Then she took these visitors into the room next door where Georges Seurat’s giant pointillism painting hangs. “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”. I somewhat followed them into that gallery, and heard her say, “Now this painting, you need to stay a distance, make my job easier for me, please.”
Ahhh, now we are back to her being a security guard.
Then she started to point out her favorite part of the painting, an obscure corner in the upper right where there are some simple tree trunks.
I couldn’t quite understand what she was saying other than she loved the form of these tree trunks. This particular Seurat painting is very well known for the composition and how many of the shapes mimic each other. I couldn’t figure out what these tree trunks were mimicking in the composition, which made it all the more amusing that the guard had such an appreciation for this part of the painting.
Was she playing a game with the visitors? Showing them a random part of the painting. Playing a joke on people? Her overflowing enthusiasm seems to show that she really loves these little details. And why not? Security guards stand in these rooms hours on end every single day, day after day after day.
I’d like to think if I was a security guard at an art museum, I’d be like one of these eccentric guards like this one.
Oh, and then she continued to direct the same person with the camera to take more photos of the painting.
She walked the visitor over to the opposite corner in the lower left, and directed him to take close-up detail shots of the painting. So much for her rule about not getting close! Maybe her love for the painting made her throw the rules out the window, allowing the visitor to get close to the famous painting.
I recorded 30-second video of the guard, pointing at the painting.
I hope to see this guard again at the museum. Next time I might approach her for an opinion about any artwork in the gallery she is guarding that moment.
A few years ago, CityLab interviewed another one of the Art Institute’s guards. https://www.citylab.com/life/2015/06/on-the-job-with-a-museum-guard/394370/
The discussion [in The Happiness Lab Episode 5: Caring What You’re Sharing] about the museum experience being designed for or against photography and the research relating to memories of the experiences reminds a lot of Matt Maldre’s recent experience with a museum security guard who urged patrons to get their phones out and take close up photos of artworks. She obviously intuitively knew something that the rest of us could have only guessed at. Or perhaps she’s just been reading all the most cutting-edge research and putting it into practice in her own work?