Asking Around

By Anna Coppelman, Rachel Sheldon
September 22, 2015

In traditional Japanese Kabuki theater, kuroko are stagehands clad entirely in black, implying both their invisibility and the fact that they are not a direct part of the main action. At the Harvard Art Museums, our attendants play a similarly crucial supporting role to the main show—the artwork—and adopt the same inky uniform, broken only by the splash of a crimson-colored necktie. Although they often seem the strong, silent type, the museum attendants are a remarkably friendly and well-informed bunch, happy to provide directions to the nearest restroom or respond to more philosophical questions. On a quiet afternoon in August, we rounded up some of the questions they get from our curious visitors.

The queries range from the practical—“Where is the Calder sculpture?”—to the skeptical—“Is the art real?” and “Why can’t I touch this?”—to the downright brazen—“What will you do if I touch this?”

Patrons also tend to be curious about security measures at the museums. Some are well-meaning and concerned about the safety of the art, asking “Why is there no glass over this painting?” or, “Won’t this sculpture fall over?” Others ask questions that must obviously go unanswered, such as “What kind of alarm systems are in place?”

And attendants sometimes bear witness to grand moments of revelation. One visitor, who had been looking for some time at the recently exhibited Rothko murals, asked an attendant if she, too, saw angels in the paintings. (The attendant had to admit that she didn’t.)

Though often working quietly just out of view, our attendants help ensure that the museums are running smoothly and safely, day in and day out. The questions they face keep them on their toes, making certain that no two days are just alike.

Anna Coppelman and Rachel Sheldon are former interns in the Communications Division at the Harvard Art Museums.