Wednesday, 21 May 2014



A couple of weekends ago I went to the National Gallery of Canada. This is the first art gallery I’ve been to in a while (I just haven't been able to get myself to the AGO for some reason… don’t judge!). Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed was not the beautiful works of art, but the copious amounts of security guards. My friend and I were the only ones in most of the galleries, but almost every room we went into a guard was there making sure we weren’t causing a ruckus.

Everyone's favourite movie: Night at the Museum

Obviously, I’m no stranger to museums; I understand how important it is to protect the objects housed there. Preservation is a huge part of collections management, and security falls under that prevue. But visitor experience is also important. At the National Gallery it was the first time I was very aware of them. With the exception of one guard, they weren’t overly friendly, and mostly just watched my friend and I walk through the gallery rooms. Quite frankly, they made me feel a tad uncomfortable.

Perhaps this was because there weren’t many people at the museum that day, so my friend and I got extra attention. Perhaps because it was a weekend, the security was bumped up. Perhaps because it is an art gallery, where the art is not protected by glass, and could easily be damaged by careless or aggressive visitors. These are all completely reasonable explanations, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a visitor I felt like I was being watched, judged and basically like they were waiting for me to lose it – and attack a piece of art. I moved through the gallery quicker than I would have if there were no guards, because I felt uncomfortable staying too long.
An accurate representation of me at the NGC
I know this is more a reflection of me, as a museum go-er (probably a hyper aware and entitled one…) than the state of security in museums, but I thought it was an important topic we should discuss.

Clearly, security is necessary in museums. We cannot house millions of dollars worth of cultural objects without supplying some kind of security. It would be irresponsible. How do we reconcile the need for security with the visitor experience?

Perhaps there is a way to integrate the security guard less as a policing figure, and more of a knowledgeable protector. Someone who isn't so intimidating, maybe.

And, that’s not to say all visitor experiences are hampered by security guards. In fact there are many instances where visitors sing security guard’s praises. In this article in the New YorkTimes, the author is quoted as saying “Museum guards find the lost, shepherd the confused and save runaway toddlers from impending collisions with immovable sculptures.” Pretty high praise.
Alternatively, in some galleries, they are using sensors which set off an alarm if visitors get too close to a painting. Is this a useful compromise? Or does the security guard act as more of a deterrent than an actual "police" force?

I'm fairly certain the age of the security guard is not going to end any time soon, and I don't want it to.  I expect to see security, I just didn't appreciate feeling judged and watched.  As emerging museum professionals, I think it is good to walk through museums as visitors so we can get a better sense of what the atmosphere is, and what kinds of give and take are allowable.

What are your security experiences in museums? Do you find a difference between art galleries and object-based museums? Am I out to lunch? 


  1. Great topic choice Meaghan! A scenario I'm confident all museum goers have experienced at some point or another. By which I mean just noticing security guards, but not necessarily feeling uncomfortable per se. But you make a very valid point, sometimes their presence can take away from the gallery experience by making visitors uneasy.
    I'm wondering if a potential solution to making our museum security guards a bit more approachable could be simply educating the public on their purpose? It seems obvious, perhaps, but if there was some sort of note or sign (or something more creative, certainly) that explains "these guys are here to protect the art all us visitors/museum pros love...feel free to ask them questions..." etc. etc. Turn the security guards' presence into a "learning opportunity" of sorts - why are they important? why do we need them? Why does art need to be protected? they aren't here just to sass you (well, most aren't anyway).

    I remember when we went on the MMST class trip to Washington DC, Jaime and I were in the National Art Gallery and we were consulting our map looking for the Vermeers. The avid confusion on our faces must have shown because the security guard came up to us and asked us if he could help us find anything. It turns out, not only was this gentleman a great help in pointing us in the right direction, but he had a fabulous sense of humour and he even gave us a few tips of things to check out and of specific details in certain works to watch for. I'm guessing he was an art lover himself, or he had just been there for a really long time. Or both. This was all only after about 15 mins of Jaime and I having entered the art gallery, so it was a really great, welcoming experience. Perhaps your NGA security guards should take a class from this guy ;)

  2. P.S. love the "psycho" imagery. spot on.

  3. I agree, Brittney, I'll bet that there are more positive experiences than negative ones. I think that better education could be done on both sides. One, so the public understand why artifacts need to protected and that security is important. Two, the guards be trained on what they are protecting, so that, as you experienced, they can be helpful and educational.

  4. Another security-related story - quite a few years back when I was interning at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston as an undergraduate student, I observed with interest the relation between security guards and curators - security guards absorbed a lot of information from the different education events and tours and they were often communicating this information to visitors - some of the curators were concerned that the guards would not provide the accurate information to the visitors, as they were not trained in art history or design, etc. There was some tension in the relation between guards and some of the museum stuff.