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What the Guards Saw: Master's thesis abstract

Museums are hierarchical, top-down institutions that value academic expertise. What other knowledge exists within the museum that may not be directly accessible? What does the museum look like from the inside, and from the proverbial ‘bottom’? Through this project, I am investigating museum security officers’ role and position in the Art Institute of Chicago, how they view their work, and what stories they wanted to tell about the experience. My research seeks to create space not only to discuss “What the guards saw”, but also what it meant to them. Their stories are  “counternarratives” in the museum; they exist alongside the museum’s main narratives, which are frequently structured by an academic voice.

            I conducted my pilot research at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation which informed the second iteration at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC).  I interviewed security guards and facilitated art-making sessions in both locations, though I did the bulk of my research and arrived at my conclusion at the Art Institute of Chicago.

My research at the AIC comprised two segments. Over three weeks in November and December of 2019 I conducted interviews with 11 security officers. Then, on Dec ­­­­­9, I facilitated a group art-making session with 12 security officers, two of whom had participated in the interviews. The participants were 80% female, and all people of color, mostly African Americans between the ages of 30-65 years, who had signed up to participate and were compensated for their time. The sessions happened in the AIC offices and in the Ryan Learning Center.

            The one-on-one interviews with the officers gave me insight into their life in the museum, what they liked or disliked about their work, and what their connection with the art was, if any. The group artmaking session yielded a different kind of data; participants opened up about problems and anxieties about working in a large institution. I collected this data through audio recordings, photos, video, note-taking, and the original artworks the participants made. 

            Initially, many of the officers were wary of being interviewed, but as they talked about a familiar subject (i.e. the museum), they became more comfortable and candid. The art-making session opened deeper conversations about their situation as security officers working for a contracted company within the museum and concerns regarding the museum as a workplace.

            This project created both direct and indirect opportunities for building and capturing narratives from vantage points not generally seen, and people not generally empowered to tell them.

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Themed presentation at the Death to Museums Virtual Conference, August 2020.

Watch the presentation video here.

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