The truly useful lessons I learned working as a museum guard

The summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I couldn’t find a job. I lived overseas and came back to the U.S. for summer vacations, so I didn’t really know where to start. I filled out applications at local chain restaurants but never got a phone call. My best friend, Jean, was already in college studying art history, and she’d gotten a job as a guard at the well-regarded art museum in our Midwestern city. She told me to apply.

At the art museum, practically the only qualification you needed to guard invaluable works of art from around the world—the Picassos and Rubenses and Caravaggios; the Faberge eggs and Egyptian sarcophagi and rare African masks; the Chinese bronzes and Japanese scrolls and Indian temple sculptures; the shiny pre-Columbian gold ornaments and Greek pottery shards—was to be 18 years old or over.

Though I was still in high school, I’d been held back a year, so I fit the bill. (This was many years ago, so perhaps hiring standards have changed.)

How many ways can I say this? Guarding is tedious, mind-numbing, boring. We could not sit. We were not supposed to talk to each other, but we did anyway, drifting to the edges of our assigned zones whenever our galleries emptied out. Still, guarding stands out as an experience that was as different as could be from my subsequent string of office jobs, and it taught me lessons I won’t forget.

Here’s what I learned during the two summers I spent roaming the halls of the museum, telling people not to touch things.

Find a way to challenge yourself

I don’t care how cool your tech start-up loft is, no workplace environment beats spending all day surrounded by art. Of course, sometimes the hours ticked by very slowly because I didn’t have anything to do except stand around.

So I made sure to stare at the artwork, to read the wall text, to observe the museum-goers passing by. I took notes in a tiny journal small enough to fit in the pocket of my navy-blue uniform blazer. My days in the galleries served as a sort of survey class on world art and also as good training for a future writer. I even wrote poems about two of my favorite artworks in the museum, the fabulously bejeweled Faberge eggs and Robert Arneson’s enormous Jackson Pollock head entitled “Myth of the Western Man.”

People go to work for different reasons

Several distinct types of people worked as guards at the museum: career security guard types; retired police officers; art or art history students; immigrants who’d had other sorts of careers in their home countries; and folks, like me and the kid whose mom was a museum administrator, who got their jobs through a connection to another employee.

Jean came to the museum every day because she loved art and wanted a museum career. Some guards guarded because a job is a job. I wanted to kill time over the summer and learn a little bit about adult responsibility. We have to respect that a job is what you make of it, and not everyone wants to make of it the same thing.

Wear comfortable shoes

We guards stood on our feet all day, sometimes six days a week. Sure, I sit all day now, but that means no one sees my feet. Might as well wear shoes that don’t pinch. When your feet hurt, your productivity sucks.

Be humble.

While I worked at the museum, a huge, important ancient Egyptian art exhibit came through. A highlight of the exhibit was a canopic chest, a case used to store internal organs removed from mummified corpses. The heavy lid of the case was propped up so visitors could view the alabaster jars inside that once had contained real livers and hearts. The jars were hard to see, though, so people kept sticking their heads under the lid, and even grabbing the edge of the chest.

I told one man not to do that, and he lectured me. “Young lady,” he said, “This chest has been around much longer than you.”

I wanted to say, “I’m just trying to do my job.” But he was right. A human-made object that has lasted thousands of years puts one’s own life in perspective.


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[Image via 20th Century Fox]