'Step away from ze painting!'

May 28 2012

Image of 'Step away from ze painting!'


It's Friday night, and you've decided to make a quick visit to the National Gallery, perhaps to unwind before going home. The galleries are hushed, the walls overflow with masterpieces, and soon the stress of the week is a distant memory. You stop to admire a little-noticed Titian, and, being a keen admirer of his technique, peer closely at his brushwork. But your heightened sense of calm and art historical appreciation is broken by a sharp, officious shout from across the room: 'Stay behind the barrier! Don't look too closely!'

Feebly, you protest that you hadn't stepped over the barrier, and had no intention of doing so. But that makes no difference to the little Hitler in the corner. You are merely an annoyance in his domain, there to be controlled and coralled. Explaining that you were looking no closer than you were in the previous room, you try and suggest that perhaps he is being over-zealous. Again, no good. Finally, by now riled at his complete lack of basic courtesy, and feeling emboldened by the fact that you have your name on the wall elsewhere in the gallery, you suggest that if he wants to stop people looking at paintings 'too closely' he might at least preface his request with a 'please'. But he cares not. Soon he will end his shift, and another tedious day overseeing the hordes will be over. 

Update - a reader writes:

I agree with most of your blog posts, but I have the opposite view of NG guards.  Several times I've seen people poking or stroking paintings at the NG, with guards doing nothing.  I remonstrated with one who refused to intervene, and he said that people only complain if he says anything.  He said that people have even kissed the Infant Christ in renaissance paintings.  I raised this directly with the Head of Security, who was immensely helpful.  He met with me, explained their policies, showed me the manuals used by the guard staff and went around the galleries with me to meet some of the guards.  Incidentally the Head of Security is knowledgeable and passionate about art himself (he keeps part of his personal collection of maritime paintings in his office, where they cost more to insure than in his home!).

Notwithstanding a few incidents, I've found NG guards to be generally alert, helpful and polite - certainly far more than in American and Italian museums, which I find the be worst.

I understand your annoyance, and I've been told off too.  But when it's a balance between protecting the art and protecting patrons' feelings, I know which way I'd like them to err.

All very valid points. But to me this is not about protecting patron's feelings, but about access to the art. Security, as we have discussed here before, must always be priority number 1. But in the NG we already have to deal with roped barriers that place the viewer further away from the paintings than any other London gallery, not to mention international ones like the Louvre. This makes things difficult for those who like to really study technique and condition. Surely there is a half-way point between the open access of, say, the Wallace Collection or Tate Britain, where the guards are, in my experience, unfailingly polite (and where, incidentally, you can also take photos ), and the current restricted viewing conditions at the NG. If all our other galleries can get it right, why can't the National Gallery?

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