No Touching! An interview with a Ringling Museum Guard

When you enter a museum, they are lurking in the corners, uniformed, silent, eyes constantly scanning the room. You may never even notice them. It’s possible that museum guards spend more time physically with the artwork than the curators and historians do. Megan Oliver worked at the Ringling Museum as a security guard for eight months before transferring to her current position as a librarian at the Ringling Museum Library.

Rubens at Ringling Museum

by Jen Nugent

When you enter a museum, they are lurking in the corners, uniformed, silent, eyes constantly scanning the room. You may never even notice them. It’s possible that museum guards spend more time physically with the artwork than the curators and historians do. I recently had the opportunity to ask a former guard at the Ringling Museum about her experience.

Megan Oliver worked at the Ringling Museum as a security guard for eight months before transferring to her current position as a librarian at the Ringling Museum Library. (I want to preface this piece by saying that I actually asked Megan at one point to complain about something and she couldn’t. I have to admit, I was sort of hoping for something juicy: perhaps a patron horrified by a sculpture, or even a potential theft. At least someone super annoying.). However, Megan radiates positivity, especially when reflecting on her experience as a guard at the museum.

She loved the job and the museum. On a typical workday a guard spends hours at a time in a gallery. They’re usually in the background and, “it’s kind of like being a fly on a wall, because when you wear the uniform, people don’t really see you, they walk past you, because we’re not really there to stand out.”

Oliver told me that although it may seem cliché, her favorite gallery is the first one that contains the enormous paintings and tapestries by Peter Paul Rubens, “What’s most memorable is that when people see the Rubens, it’s hard for them to believe sometimes that it’s a real painting, because they are so monumental. People come in and they are astonished, and that says something about a four hundred year old painting.”

Not all the exhibits evoke the ‘oohs’ of the giant Baroque paintings though. I’ve always wondered what type of reactions were had when walking into the exhibits like ‘Zimoun: Sculpting Sound’, where galleries contained giant kinetic sculptures made of cardboard and wire, producing buzzing hums throughout each room. Oliver says, “I think that children really liked Zimoun, they thought it was refreshing and exciting and I had some adults that really liked it. And then you had some people that came in and said ‘this doesn’t make any sense in the context of the baroque art and the renaissance art’ and that’s true but it does make sense in the context of the art museum as a whole because we have different exhibits.”

Rubens at Ringling Museum
The Flight of Lot and His Family from-Sodom by Peter Paul Rubens,1613-15. Oil on canvas. From the Ringling Museum

Oliver also highly recommends the ‘Asian and Cypriot Art Exhibit’ (currently on view through Oct. 21) and the Rubens etchings in ‘Impressions from a Master’ (on view until Jun. 3) She says that “I wasn’t expecting to like it, but the intricacy of the etchings and the drawings is breathtaking. I learned more in that gallery about Rubens than I did when I took my art class in college; I was surprised at the printmaking that was going on in that time period.”

Guards typically rotate during their shifts, so they really get a chance to experience the entire collection of a museum. They’re also constantly being asked questions, so even though the museum docents may be trained for over a year on a topic, viewers are engaging with the nearest person in uniform. Many guards at the Ringling Museum have backgrounds in the arts, including Clyde Burnett, whose exhibit is installed in the Federal Building on Orange Ave. until June. 30th. Although Oliver’s degrees are in English Literature and Anthropology; she plans to begin her Masters in Art History this spring.

Oliver’s transition from security into the library was smooth; she’s overheard enough conversations and listened in on plenty of gallery talks to become familiar with the collection. Now she’s in charge of the digital collection at the library and although their collection doesn’t circulate, it is open to the public. The library is hoping to expand their hours to five days a week and become more accessible to the public.