Certain bits of a museum are there for practicality and comfort – track lighting, plugs, elevators, thermostats, water fountains. Unlike the museum building or the work it houses, these niche spaces are designed to fade away into relative invisibility, to support the museum-going experience, and certainly aren’t meant to inspire or represent our cultural values. (Objectively one could read the presence of exit signs and wheelchair ramps as a culture’s endorsement of safety and accessibility, but that might be reading too much into things.)
On the other hand, our behavior is certainly, if subtly, shaped by these things we’ve been trained through repetition and exposure to ignore. No one stops in front of the unmarked door painted the same color as the wall in the corner of the gallery; one politely steps past it, and on to the next piece. A visual language composed of neutral paint and the most utilitarian of door knobs signals that this is not part of the show.
If there’s one ubiquitous invisible fixture of the museum who invariably shapes behavior, it’s the museum guard. As fixtures, guards carry a host of responsibilities – they’re protectors, explainers, and wayfinders; their presence implies that artwork is worthy of protection, and we act accordingly.
Because they’re perceived as such a part of the institution, it’s not often that we give much thought to a guard’s experiences in the museum space, which must be unique, being both a part of the social code and exposed to it at the same time. So it’s exciting that a group of museum guards at the NY Met, many of whom are artists themselves, have decided to launch an art journal called Sw!pe, in which to showcase their own creative endeavors. According to 25CPW, the gallery where the launch party and opening was held on Thursday, “through this publication, the journal and its editors, hope to provide a platform and inspiration for other cultural institutions to showcase their own creative workforce.”
More than just talking about being museum guards, these artists are taking their position and leveraging it, processing it, activating a part of the museum infrastructure that simply wasn’t obvious before in a creative, engaging way. Out of the niche and into the spotlight.
While this intervention isn’t happening in the museum space itself, it has the potential to change the scripted social code of the museum nonetheless. Imagine engaging in a conversation with your helpful museum guard, not about the nearest bathroom or photography policies, but about their latest work or favorite masterpiece. It never really crossed our minds before, but now we wonder – why so invisible? When is the next employee show?