My Time at the National Gallery of Art….Epilog
This is the final final part (finally) to my post dated April 7, 2013, titled My Time at the National Gallery of Art (NGA). To bring this to a conclusion, I am going to address these aspects of working at NGA.
Patrolling the Splendor of Dresden exhibit
Patrolling the Galleries of the West Building
Patrolling the tunnels under the Gallery buildings
In sharing these stories you will get the sense of creepiness that comes with a job like this, as well as, the beauty that I have spoken.
The Splendor of Dresden was an exhibit of Germany art created over 500 years. It was on loan from Germany to the US, touring the country during 78 and 79. It made its’ initial stop at NGA, and the exhibit was to be part of the 1st collections show in the new East Building. As such, the exhibit required special treatment, and had very specific needs for protection. The exhibit (almost 10,000 square feet of exhibit space) itself was located in the new East Building of NGA, on the lowest exhibit level. As the final touches were being put on the new building, the exhibit was being created. The presence of Guards was mandatory per the agreement, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During working hours there were numerous Guards, as specific locations thru out the exhibit, and after working hours the in gallery guards, were reduced to 2 each responsible for about 5,000 sq. ft. There was also the normal walking patrol, which came thru the gallery every hour. Besides painting, the exhibit included all manner of art objects; vases, statues, china, cloths, jewelry, bowls, jars, perfume bottles, and on and on. But the most unique aspect to the exhibit (in my opinion), was the collections of armor, soldiers (both officer and enlisted), nobility, horses (yes!! stuffed horses with armor), men on horses, even some childlike armor. And it wasn’t just a piece or 3; there must have been at least 15 different sets of armor on display. These pieces were situated throughout the gallery, as if in their own pattern to provide protection to the exhibit. You could hardly turn around without one of these pieces looking at you thru that faceless head covering. Also, there were weird sounds coming from that gallery, sounds of metal rubbing together, voices, even smells. BTW I was not the only Guard to hear and smell things I shouldn’t in such a secured place. For a month I was one of the Guards that stood duty in this exhibit before it opened to the public. If was creepy and freaky. But with all the workmen and other guards, it was cool. Again it was neat to watch the staff open a crate and remove another piece of art, then put into place in its’ own special display case. Just before the East Building Grand Opening, I transferred to the 3rd shift. Let me just say it was creepy walking thru that exhibit at 2am. Whenever you did your walk thru patrol in this exhibit, you felt each set of eyes from the armor following you. You could feel it on the back of your neck, you could almost hear the horses snort, yet as quick as you turned all you saw was the faceless armor. Glimpses of shadows could freak you in a second. Even coming up on the guard post you would make extra noise to let that poor guy know you were on the way. The Splendor of Dresden was only open to the public for 3 months. It took a month to break it down for movement to the next city, but there was a constant Stephen King moment in the exhibit hall while it was in Washington DC.
The West Building of the National Gallery of Art is the quintessential art museum building. It is grandeur built upon grandeur and majestic to revel any other museum on the Mall in Washington DC. Each gallery can hold 12 to 16 significantly large painting, allowing them each to have their space, making you the viewer feel alone with the painting. With only a few exceptions each gallery has 2 entrance/exits, making it very easy to move from gallery to gallery. Also, each gallery is devoted to a specific a period in art history be it; Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Modern or Contemporary, with painting from that period in that gallery. As a visitor to the NGA, when visiting the painting, you always notice that certain pictures look back at you. Your standing 6 to 8 feet away, staring at a Renaissance painting, or a Neoclassic, maybe a painting from the Romantic period, and once you have absorbed the texture, the detail, the color, you finally notice that the painting is looking back at you, it’s absorbing your texture, your color. It kinda creeps you a bit, but you move on to the next painting, and you again pick up these feeling. These feeling really don’t leave until you on to the Modern and Contemporary painting or into the central hall. Throughout your visit you are comforted by the hundreds of other people having their experiences with the paintings.
Having had that experience, now walk thru those same galleries at 2 o’clock in the morning, the lights are much dimmer, the shadows which didn’t exit during “normal” hours manifest from unexpected places. Your flashlight only penetrates so far. Now the eyes of the painting come completely alive, you wait for them to either wink or blink; you shine your flashlight and swear you can see the cornea shrink as the light hits it. Each painting picks up your present the moment you step into the gallery, they pay close attention to you, and they follow you as you progress thru the gallery. You whip your body about in effort to catch the eyes looking at you. You know they are watching but you never can catch them. They watch you from all 4 walls, you never leave their sight. I walked thru those galleries probably once a night for over 18 months. I would ask other guards if they experienced those feelings, some said yes, some no, some gave you a defensive laugh. For as beautiful and unique as these painting were, they had a life to themselves. They brought life into the galleries in which they hung.
Back a few thousand words ago I spoke of learning the patrols on the night shift. I would like to talk about the patrols thru the sub-basement and tunnels of the West Building of the NGA. The sub-basement and tunnels below were the deepest part of the building, in the tunnels there was no radio communications, there were no phones, but there were watch boxes, and you had to be there at the appointed time. The 1st week on the night shift you were partnered with a senior more experienced guard, and they showed you the ropes, where you could stop and rest, where the water fountains were on the way and taught you how to get from point A to B in the best manner. The infrastructure (heat and cooling piping, electrical service, plumbing, vents and such) were all down in the tunnels. To my knowledge there was only once access point to the tunnels from ground level, and I believe it was pointed out to me by accident. But of all the patrols, the tunnels were always completed as scheduled. If there were a shortage of guards or if the weather really sucked other patrols could and would be called off, but those bi-hour patrols of the tunnels were always completed. Lighting was poor, ventilation was poor, it was dirty, the tunnels didn’t have the most pleasant of smells, and there were some critters down there that acted like they own the place. The tunnels were made up on a grid, but the patrol thru the tunnels was convoluted. In making this patrol you had to climb over some piping and under other piping. In some areas you had to go up 2 or 3 steps and down 1. The piping in the tunnels was from 2 inches to 20 inches or greater in diameter. And the easy way to tell how successful you were at the end of the patrol was based on how clean you were. It is truly amazing how dirty one’s hands and crotch can get climbing over and under that piping. The surest way to know if you were kinda going in the right direction was to check for how shiny the pipe was before you went over or under. My partner showed me some shortcuts that we weren’t supposed to use, but if you took them you might as well report yourself. Because you were as dirty as you would ever be. You could use you flashing and stay on the beaten path, but if you weren’t paying attention you would walk right into the low hanging pipes. And rookies always got busted. Two times during my 2nd week working nights another guard laid hidden in wait. Both times I had the living crap scared out of me. I was so intent on not getting lost, on being timely, on staying on the beaten path I didn’t hear or see the guard until they pounced. I screamed like a child, and really damn near wet my pants. The following eyes of the galleries above and the armor of the ancient guards in the East Building did not hold a candle to a guard jumping from behind a pipe in the tunnels to scare the crap out of you.
Folks, thank you for your continued patience, this turned out to be much longer than I had originally intended. But I hope you enjoyed it. If you have comments or questions please feel free to ask. Please take care, Bill