Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Museum guards provide joy, knowledge

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Museum guards provide joy, knowledge


When we moved to Champaign-Urbana in the 1970s, we had three little boys. We regularly visited local parks, each with its distinctive play equipment. There was an old firetruck at Hessel, the latest in adventurous climbing structures at Hazel Jungerich. Lincoln Square had the granite whale to crawl through.

Every so often, we varied the ambience by visiting Krannert Art Museum, where there was a small central play area.

Adults could visit the galleries and fairly easily keep an eye on the kids. A museum guard kept a very watchful eye at close hand.

Over the years, I noted one guard always there. He was vigilant and grave. The others changed, but there he still was in the early 2000s when several Uni High teachers and I ran the summer workshop called VIA Fest. The students partnered to create an interpretive video of an artwork of their choice.

I thought about that guard. I wondered if he had a family, had interests like sports or — what? The only thing for sure was that he aged.

Then I spotted him more and more often at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts. He clearly appreciated music and drama. I speculated which came first — the love of arts or being physically present with art as a guardian of it. I never asked him.

I wish I had. Perhaps to compensate, I now often speak with guards at exhibits.

A 2018 exhibit at Krannert Art Museum filled three large rooms: "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts across the Indian Ocean."

There was a wealth of practical and ceremonial objects: ornate wooden chairs called "thrones of power" to convey status, platform sandals, ear spools, ivory horns, combs, a large drum, Quran manuscripts, even portrait photographs.

After viewing at leisure, I asked the guard in one room, obviously a college student on work contract, which one she liked the most as she surveyed them in solitude. She pointed to a mahogany door frame densely carved with fruits and flowers. "I feel exuberant when I walk through it," she replied. "Maybe it's in part because I have Indian friends, and the description says the carvings show influence of lush decorations in Indian art."

In the back room with photographs and culinary objects, I queried the guard. He smiled and pointed. "The coconut shell scraper! Isn't it ingenious?"

I'd never seen such an item — a decoratively carved stool in black wood with a back rest, no less. It had a sturdy stick jutting out with a serrated grater at its end.

After the coconut was split, the sitter spun one-half around the grater to get the flaked meat and the juice into a pot beneath. It was a Tanzanian "mbuzi," the Swahili word for goat because it chewed whatever was given to it.

Most recently, I viewed "John Singer Sargent and Chicago's Gilded Age" at the Chicago Art Institute. Most are large portraits, dazzling with the sumptuous silks and textiles Sargent is renowned for.

I had previously learned that Chicago Art Institute guards rotate through the day. They are not tied to a single room or exhibit. Moving about keeps them more alert and aware when they adjust to a new surrounding.

One middle-aged guard had a vantage between two large rooms.

Her favorite among the 20 or so she overlooked? "La Carmencita," a life-size Spanish dancer in gold silk embroidered and fringed with silver. The skirt was a full ballerina bell. Her poise was pure elegance.

"She is so graceful. I want to see her dance right out of that jet black background."

"So," I said, pointing to another elegant lady, also life size, in shimmering silver and pink satin, "how does she compare with 'Mrs. George Swinton?' My audio guide says she became a professional singer. Sargent kept a piano in his studio and amused them both by accompanying her. Such fooling around delayed the portrait's completion."

"Well, yes, she is gorgeous. I suppose her voice was also. But I still like 'La Carmencita' better. She makes me want to dance. I could do her kind of dancing. I could only listen to the other lady."

I moved on then. As with the Swahili exhibit at Krannert, I would remember with special pleasure the works the guards had responded to. They added the joy of a person to the interesting knowledge of related facts.

Rosemary Laughlin is a writer and retired English teacher from University High School.