Since the very first instalment in the Night at the Museum trilogy, the role of the museum guard has become a subject of fascination. From the British Museum’s offer of a sleepover in the Egyptian gallery to the Natural History Museum’s aptly named, Dino Snores, the opportunity to spend the twilight hours in one of the country’s cultural institutions has entered the public psyche and shows no chance of leaving.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has impacted museums as much as other sectors, with the doors closed to the country’s great and the good since mid-March. However, there are the chosen few who are still able to walk these hallowed halls, albeit under the most unusual of circumstances.
With exhibitions postponed for the foreseeable future, security staff, managers and curators remain on site, balancing social distancing with protecting culture.
Delroy Grey, the security shift leader at the National Portrait Gallery has noticed a distinct shift in his role since lockdown commenced. On a more typical day, Grey would be charged with preventing over-eager visitors from pressing their noses against portraits and even foiling the best efforts of shoplifters.
Now he says: “You notice the little things, like when the sun hits certain galleries in the morning and seems to bring them alive.”
The change in circumstances is echoed by the Royal Academy’s Alex Butler, the assistant manager for the gallery’s visitor services team.
Indeed, Butler has established a bond with specific works, saying that: “The Farenese Hercules statue and I are building quite a rapport. I’m just worried that he may start answering me back if I’m with him much longer…”
The accidental private view both Butler and Grey are now privy to has allowed them to focus on the more understated works, with Butler forming a particular attachment to Lavery’s 1918 Hazel in Rose and Gold - “It’s essentially just a very simple figure of a woman, and it’s one of those paintings I walk past a lot, but I’m just beginning to appreciate the colours.”
However, Butler notes that the current galleries are perhaps a touch too quiet for his liking. He says: “The galleries are very much their audiences as much as the artworks within them. When they’re empty, they yearn for an audience.
He concludes “It’s the discussion our visitors have about the work that brings life to them.”