Museum security guards: Lots of art and a little eavesdropping
Hylan Booker, a security guard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says there’s a lot more to his profession than preventing visitors from putting their grimy fingers, noses or chewing gum all over precious works of art.
“One of the things is that people always forget about museums, and forget about guards, is that when the docents go, the curators go, we’re the only ones left,” says Booker, 72, one of several museum guards at L.A.’s major museums who talked about their unusual line of work for a Sunday Arts & Books story.
“And patrons are very demanding -- they don’t care if you are a curator, they want to know, and you are supposed to know because you are standing in front of this stuff,” Booker continues. “And to know a lot, more than just where’s the toilet and where’s the Picasso. They want to know about every kind of art there is. “
Booker, as well as security guards from MOCA and the Getty Museum who were interviewed for the story, don’t pretend to be art experts -– but these quiet sentries, who spend long hours on their feet in the galleries, say they develop an intimate relationship with the art that can’t be developed while rushing through with a docent or audio tour.
Moreover, these “art cops” aren’t just watching the paintings, sculptures and installations, they’re watching you -- which, they point out, can sometimes be the most amusing part of all. One of Getty museum guard Jesse Ward’s favorite pieces is "Portrait of Louis XIV," an 18th century painting from the workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud –- not so much because of the work, but the reactions of visiting schoolchildren to the king’s fancy duds, including his silk stockings, dainty dancing shoes with red bows and elaborate wig. What is this dude wearing?
“The children are in awe of the painting –- they don’t relate culturally,” Ward says. “But the educators come along and explain that he’s wearing silk stockings because at that time in France they had found out the secret of Chinese silk. And his mother had a big influence on his life; she got him into being a dancer, he was very proud of his legs. And I guess he had over 100 wigs in his collection, and this was one of his favorites.” In fact, the monarch loved the painting so much he had multiple copies made; the original remains in the Louvre in Paris.
Learning this stuff is the reason Ward, like most museum guards, loves his job –- and has come to love art.
-- Diane Haithman
Photos, from top: Hylan Booker stands under Chris Burden's "Urban Light" at LACMA. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez.
"Portrait of Louis XIV," 18th century, workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud. Oil on canvas. Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.