Reposted from HeadTopics
As lockdown silences Britain’s art galleries, the staff who look after them explain how life is more serene – and eerier
It’s actually the street lights outside flickering on and off, casting strange, inconsistent shadows across the sculpture galleries. But even if you know that, says Alex Butler, assistant manager for the gallery’s “visitor services” team, these are eerie places in which to be alone.
In London, meanwhile, at the Royal Academy of Arts, ghosts dressed in habits have been spotted hurrying along the Nun’s Walk, between Burlington House and Burlington Gardens, and on the Keeper’s House staircase. Stopping for a quick chat with her favourite sculpture every day, security officer Nicky Elworthy has recently had the disquieting feeling that it’s about to answer back.
And down the road at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Vernon Rapley, the director of cultural-heritage protection and security, listens for the traffic noise on the Cromwell Road. It usually carries on throughout the night. But that hum, and the regular hustle-and-bustle on Exhibition Road, have vanished, leaving a peculiar silence in their wake.
No, this isn’t how you announce a fourth instalment for the Night at the Museum films – this is reality for the British art galleries closed to the public under the coronavirus lockdown, and for the staff who are still at work in them.Few major galleries, in fact, are truly empty. Security staff, managers and curators are all on site, carrying out essential tasks to preserve and protect the exhibits. But the visitors who usually provide the footfall and the noise are gone, and without them, says Rapley, these museums “appear to be in an induced coma”.
Which is not to say the emptiness is unpleasant. Delroy Grey, security shift leader at the National Portrait Gallery, might on a typical day be cautioning visitors for touching the artworks; occasionally, he might foil a shoplifter. But since the lockdown began, he says, it feels like your own daily private view.
The closed cafés and absence of school groups have lent his job a certain serenity, and given him a newfound appreciation for the picturesque setting in which he works. “You notice the little things, like when the sun hits certain galleries in the morning and seems to bring them alive.”
Over at the Royal Academy, Elworthy is getting to know some of the artworks better. “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…”Butler, for his part, has found that he’s paying more attention to some of the smaller paintings he wouldn’t notice on a normal day, nestled away from the Walker’s main attractions. He’s becoming especially fond of John Lavery’s 1918 painting 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.”
There’s also John Williamson’s 1791 portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, hung high on a gallery wall. “It’s a very austere portrait, but there’s a life to it that you notice more when you’re walking around the empty galleries.”Of course, those empty galleries bring new challenges as well. At the V&A, Rapley’s biggest security challenge is the mere lack of eyes. “Of course we have security officers on site 24/7, and have nearly 1,000 CCTV cameras watching our collections, but our visitors, volunteers and staff are our eyes and ears.
“They are so often the ones who tell us when something is wrong or when someone is doing something that they shouldn’t. Without them it’s a big task for our security team to do everything that thousands of people do for us on a normal day.”And there’s the dust: the absence of visitors tramping around and dislodging it means that after just one week of closure, the exhibits were noticeably tattier than usual.
The lack of day-to-day human contact for the on-site staff can be lonely too. “It’s a bit bittersweet to have the exhibitions to ourselves,” says Butler. Rapley agrees: “The collections have lost a bit of their sparkle – they come to life when our galleries are busy.”
“The galleries are very much their audiences as much as the artworks within them,” Butler explains. “When they’re empty, they yearn for an audience. It’s the discussion our visitors have about the work that brings life to them.”He quotes the late critic John Berger: “What any true painting touches is an absence – an absence of which without the painting, we might be unaware. And that would be our loss.”
Like Rapley at the V&A, Butler talks of looking forward to the Walker’s reopening – whenever that might be. Reimagined tour routes and fresh exhibitions are already in the works, or at least the imaginations of curators across the country who suddenly have time on their hands.
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