SR2 Security Robot vs the army grunts of the art world

In the 1990s, a technology company, Cybermotion, tried to sell museums on the concept of robot security guards.

With a squat body on three wheels, a rail-like neck and a rectangular head, the SR2 Security Robot looked like Number 5 from the movie “Short Circuit.” It used sonar and infrared technology to monitor the air quality, temperature and humidity in galleries, and could detect motion caused by potential intruders. But the motorized museum guard failed to catch on, and Cybermotion closed in 2001.

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Nevertheless, some museum visitors might see guards, so often silent and stone-faced, as more machine than human. That is a misconception. Many guards, like the six profiled below, speak with obvious passion about the exhibitions, as well as the visitors, for which they feel responsible.

Museum guards find the lost, shepherd the confused and save runaway toddlers from impending collisions with immovable sculptures. The job demands long hours, constant vigilance and a reservoir of patience to put up with illicit picture takers, soda smugglers and pontificating amateur art critics, among other annoyances. Consider these guards the army grunts of the art world.

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Luther Nakapaahu

National Museum

Of the American Indian

Most museum guards field common questions. Greatest hits include “Where are the bathrooms?” and “Can I touch this?” But visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York often ask Luther Nakapaahu about survival skills: for example, “How do you make a bed in the snow?” Mr. Nakapaahu, an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, is the only guard of Native American descent at the New York museum.

He grew up in Honolulu and moved to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming when he was 17, after his mother died. His maternal grandparents put him right to work, rebuilding the family’s horse ranch.

“Wyoming, it was a shock,” said Mr. Nakapaahu, 51, a large man with close-cropped hair and a baritone voice. “We started learning how to bale hay, going up to the mountains to cut tepee poles, learning to shave tepee poles, then learning to break and ride horses.”

Mr. Nakapaahu sees parallels between handling horses and communicating with crowds at museums. “Sometimes with horses and people, patience is a virtue,” he said. With a grin, he recalled the first time he tried to corral horses by chasing them: his uncle “just started laughing. What he showed us was you take a bale of oats, put it in a pail and yell — and they come to us.”

Mr. Nakapaahu, who spends some breaks in the museum’s library learning about his heritage, scans new exhibitions for artifacts from his tribe. He recalled spotting a Northern Arapaho saddle displayed in “A Song for the Horse Nation,” a 2009-11 exhibition. “It’s sort of everything mixed up in one feeling,” he said quietly. “Happy, pride, shock.”

Todd Balthazor

Walker Art Center

If you notice a guard at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis suddenly balancing on one foot or striking a yoga pose, it’s probably just Todd Balthazor limbering up. “I’m stretching all the time,” he said. “You have to do that, or else you are going to stiffen up. We have some elderly workers, and they just walk like trees.”

Even when the galleries are packed, Mr. Balthazor, 31, admits to struggling on occasion against monotony. To stay sharp, he developed tricks like memorizing a guest’s outfit or holding his breath “until you almost black out.” He also keeps an eye out for material for his autobiographical comic strip, which the museum publishes online.

In the strip, “It Is What It Is,” Mr. Balthazor frequently aims graphic barbs at museum guests, like the “photo bomber,” who poses in front of large paintings without considering the art. “They look at it like, ‘This is going to be a great backdrop for my Facebook profile,’ ” Mr. Balthazor said.

In another strip, he bemoans having to guard “Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja, Nee Nee Nee Nee Nee,” an audio installation by the German artist Joseph Beuys. “It’s an 11-minute loop of him just going, ‘Ja, ja, ja, nee, nee, nee.’ You can’t even think, unfortunately, when you’re next to that,” he said. “And then you had to stand right next to the speakers because they didn’t want people to actually poke at it with pencils.”

Dynnita Bryant

Philadelphia Museum of Art

“It’s not going to work. It’s not going to work. It’s not going to work.” Dynnita Bryant heard that refrain repeatedly while laboring to persuade fellow guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to form a union.

But Ms. Bryant received encouragement from many visitors and inspiration from paintings in the museum. Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Peter Paul Rubens’s “Prometheus Bound” particularly stirred her. “ ‘Sunflowers’ makes me think, I stand next to this priceless piece of art for this little bit of change, and ‘Prometheus Bound’ makes me think, this is us,” said Ms. Bryant, who now moonlights as president of the Philadelphia Security Officers Union.

In 2011, the union’s first contract with AlliedBarton Security Services, which provides guards for the museum, increased guards’ wages to $10.88 an hour from $10.03 and stipulated two subsequent raises. Guards also received up to three paid sick days; before they had none. Ms. Bryant said the extra 85 cents an hour had improved the lives of many guards. “I could buy a loaf of bread and have some change,” she said. “That was a victory to me.”

Darrell Lawrence

Smithsonian National Air

And Space Museum

Though he went “hand-to-hand with the Taliban” as a military policeman at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and fought in the gulf war, Darrell Lawrence argues that working as a guard at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington is a more difficult job. “It’s more peaceful here” than in Iraq, he allows, but in the military, “you knew who your enemy was.”

Visitors to museums tend not to advertise themselves as terrorists. “Everybody who comes through the door is a threat,” said Mr. Lawrence, who frequently responds to questions with “No, sir” or “Yes, sir.”

The threat level rose in 2009, when a white supremacist shot and killed a guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “It’s a wake-up call. You hate for something like that to happen, but you have to be on your toes and more aware,” said Mr. Lawrence, who called working as a museum guard a national service.

While Mr. Lawrence maintains an active-duty mind-set, he still manages to admire some of the museum’s exhibitions. He is in awe of the 1903 Wright Flyer, Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first airplane, but reveres a Predator drone on display. He credits a Predator with saving his life during Operation Desert Storm. He was about to transport Iraqi prisoners through hostile territory when the Predator detected and destroyed a potential ambush. “I love the drone,” he said. “I’ve seen it in action.”

Jeffrey Salter

Guggenheim Museum

Jeffrey Salter’s uniform at the Guggenheim Museum includes a large blue button that reads, “Ask Me About the Art.” Mr. Salter is one of the museum’s gallery guides, a job requiring the attentiveness of a security guard and the empathy of a psychotherapist. Though trained to protect exhibitions, gallery guides roam the Guggenheim to discuss art with visitors.

During impromptu exchanges at the museum, Mr. Salter often taps his training in improvisational theater. “If you are playing a scene and someone doesn’t say anything at first, you are looking for facial expressions and body language,” he said on a recent Saturday afternoon in a Guggenheim conference room. “I think that’s applicable to what I’m doing here.”

He studied improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center in New York and performs with a troupe called Gayle, named for the television host Gayle King, Oprah Winfrey’s prominent friend.

Mr. Salter, a thin, bearded 27-year-old with an appreciation for the absurd (in a comedic sketch, he portrayed the husband of an eight-pound catfish), laments that museum guards have a reputation as scolds. “We’re not monolithic, authoritarian figures,” he said. “We have these complex lives and are nice people to be around.”

He can be tough if necessary. To command attention while maintaining an affable tone, Mr. Salter drew inspiration from his high school English class. He recalled a teacher “who was, on the one hand, a really accessible, friendly guy, but if you were talking during a lecture, he would let you know that wasn’t acceptable.”

Though he has yet to speak about his museum job on stage, Mr. Salter often finds humor in art. He singled out the work of the whimsical Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who created “Not Afraid of Love,” a life-size sculpture of an elephant cloaked in a bedsheet with holes for its eyes and trunk. “There was something very funny,” he said, “about the proverbial elephant in the room trying to hide itself.”

Linda Smith

Baltimore Museum of Art

Linda Smith is used to being overlooked. Museum visitors, understandably, focus on the art rather than the people protecting the art. “The irony is that the guard is the most visible staff member in the museum,” Ms. Smith said.

Museum guards, in her opinion, deserve more attention, so in 2011 she curated “Guardists,” a gallery exhibition showcasing art by her co-workers. Several pieces sold, including two paintings by Ms. Smith, who earned an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She notes that several acclaimed artists have walked in her well-worn shoes. Former guards include Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold and Mel Bochner, who will be honored next year with a retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York — the same institution that fired him as a guard in 1965 for sleeping on duty.

Ms. Smith considers Robert Ryman her guardist role model. “Ryman worked at the Museum of Modern Art for seven years,” she said. “He was not a painter when he started there, but he became one.”

Rather than being daunted by the works on the walls of a museum, Ms. Smith made the case that spending all day around art (or much of the night, the shift she works now) could fuel a competitive spirit. “For many artists,” she said, “if they don’t get a jolt of inspiration from a piece, there’s also the feeling of, ‘Well, I can do something as good as that.’ ”

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