museum attendant. This is not a profession that is considered sexy. Supervising works of art is commonly seen as a boring occupation. They get paid for just standing around and staring at holes, as the saying goes.
And in literature and cinema, the supervisors are either idiots, dull characters like “the Irrsigler” in Thomas Bernhard’s comedy “Old Masters” or psychopaths who develop feelings of hatred for the paintings they are actually supposed to protect. Just like the Prado guard in Javier Mariá’s novel “My heart so white” who ignites the picture angrily.
Earlier this year, a Russian museum guard made a name for himself for “embellishing” a work of art he was assigned to guard at Yekaterinburg’s Boris Yeltsin Museum. On the painting “Three Figures” by artist Anna Leporskaya from 1932-34, the guard scribbled three pairs of eyes. With the pen. Because he lacked the eyes in the artistic representation. He was promptly investigated for vandalism against cultural assets.
So far, so rare, because the rule is that the supervisory staff in the museums of the world quietly fulfills their responsible job, which has very little to do with romantic fantasies à la “Night at the Museum”. So it’s nice that the State Museums in Berlin are now offering the opportunity to get to know the people who guard their valuables as part of the popular efforts in the museum world to promote accessibility, diversity and a change of perspective.
“Every day in the museum. Supervisors present their favorite works,” is the name of the presentation, which ranges from the Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Dahlem to the picture gallery and arts and crafts museum at the Kulturforum to the Museum Island and the arts and crafts museum in Köpenick Castle. In the form of displays and large cards that show photographs of women and men in front of their favorite item and explain why in short texts.
Thirty supervisors with very different backgrounds took part in the campaign, which has already been played out in other museums around the world. People like Sergey, who was an art teacher and graphic designer in Latvia and has now been working at the Pergamon Museum since 2017.
He had himself photographed in front of the Neo-Babylonian Ishtar Gate from the 6th century BC. He is quoted as saying that he saw the pictures of the gate and the processional street in his textbook as a child. “For me it was a surprise to meet this work in reality in Berlin, in the center of Europe.”
Sultan Machigov and Olha Savielieva both fell in love with the same piece in Köpenick Palace: the large silver buffet from the Knights’ Hall of Berlin Palace, which dates from the 17th century. “It would be great to have something like that at home when friends come over,” says Machigov about the magnificent crockery, and Savielieva feels reminded of her mother’s Sunday crockery from GDR production.
Similar to Amela Jusufovic, supervisor at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen, who, when she sees a magnificently painted Sicilian cart from 1904, thinks of her home in former Yugoslavia, where such companions were and are on the move. “Even for the Roma and especially for the women who organize their wedding. The couple is painted on, the story of how they met and the family coat of arms.” Biographical memories, associations, personal taste and perception of beauty – all of this plays a role in the supervisors’ identification with an object.
But you only really get to know people when you talk to them about their selection. With the archeology fan Hartmut Peters, for example, who “would have liked to have become a little Schliemann himself” and chose an everyday object in the Near Eastern Museum. A clay pot in the shape of two pigs’ heads. The pointed snouts remind him of the pepper and salt shakers in his parents’ party room. “They’re cute, you have to love them,” he says. They are certainly less impressive than other pieces, but they tell of the everyday life of people from the 8th century BC.
Peters has been doing the job for twelve years. His colleague Thomas Burghardt, who, like all the guards in the Pergamon Museum, is an employee of the security company “Guard”, has only been there since April 2021. The Corona crisis drove the sommelier and amateur musician from a wine bar to the museum.
His favorite is a carpet fragment in the Museum of Islamic Art. Damaged in 1945 during the bombing campaign, the carpet was patched up by an old lady with a needle and thread. The story pleases Burghardt, who attests the textile a warm, sensual aura. “Despite my dust allergy.”
Going to the football stadium as a security guard was never an option for Burghardt. At work he draws on the aura of the museum. “A place with a good atmosphere, with style, with sophisticated objects in which I can lose myself” is important to him. Privately he prefers the modern and contemporary and prefers to go to the Hamburger Bahnhof and the Neue Nationalgalerie.
Completely different from Michael Buchholz, who started at the Neues Museum three years ago and is now the supervisor at the Museum of Islamic Art, dividing up the staff. Buchholz says that he has been collecting classical art for 40 years. The typographer, who ran his own advertising agency for 15 years, came to the museum after falling ill.
He favors a plain bowl decorated with characters from 11th century Iran. “She is the most expressive to me. The designer wasn’t afraid of free space, didn’t feel any horror vacui.” What the blessing depicted on it means exactly has not yet been able to be told to him, even by Arabic-speaking visitors who he asked about it.
The supervisory work, which leads the guards through the rooms in a rotation to reduce monotony, is exhausting, Buchholz knows. “Imagine that you are waiting somewhere for someone you have made an appointment with and they don’t come all day.” That’s roughly what it feels like to stand in an exhibition for eight hours. In the Pergamon Museum, through which throngs of excited school classes are passing that morning, the need to pay attention to the behavior of visitors should not be underestimated.
For some time, supervisors who came as refugees from Somalia or Syria have also been involved. That helps to close the gaps that result from retirements, explains Buchholz. He himself has only once experienced a situation in which he believed that it would escalate. “A visitor yelled at the figures in the rotunda of the Altes Museum.”
What did the museum attendant do? Nothing. Supervisors should only intervene when a work is touched. Thankfully, the screamer calmed down on his own. Possibly under the healing influence of art.