No Flash Photography

Six invigilators guarding London’s finest museums and galleries.


Step into any museum or gallery in the world and you’ll almost immediately be confronted by someone who ushers you to the left, herds you to the right, insists on searching your bag or waves you toward the nearest cloakroom. Venture a little further and you’ll find uniformed guards swapping their posts so regularly that you lose track of them. Sporadically, one of these black-clad guardians will step in to make sure your hands are off the exhibits and your mobile phone is in your pocket.

But who are these people? What do they do outside of work? What do they think of the works of art and antiquity that you seek out on the weekends? After all, they live with these exhibits day in, day out, and may understand them a whole lot better than the rest of us. I went ahead and asked them.


Alessandro Fanara, Saatchi Gallery

Explain as simply as possible what you do at the gallery.
As Front of House Coordinator, I provide customer service to visitors and school groups and deal with customer queries. I assist the supervisor and head of visitor services with daily duties. I also invigilate galleries and carry out tours.

How long have you had the job?
I started my internship here in March 2011, after which I became Gallery Assistant.

How did you first become interested in the gallery?
I have always loved art. I studied history of art at university and my passion for contemporary art is one of the reasons for my interest in the Saatchi Gallery. Also, from a very young age I was fascinated by adverts. I used to buy VHS cassettes with commercials from different countries and this is how I heard about Mr Saatchi and what sparked my curiosity about him. Then I bumped into that shark…

What’s your favourite piece of work and why?
Eddie Martinez’s The Feast in Gallery Three, which is part of the_ Body Language_ exhibition. I like the way the artist references Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and recreates something entirely new by dismantling the traditional iconography using a pop style.

What does it mean to you?
I feel that Martinez’ painting asks what would happen if Jesus Christ, the most important element from The Last Supper, was removed? The consequence of this is in front of our eyes. The piece becomes a capitalist representation of this incredibly significant moment and important artwork.

Roughly how many hours have you spent looking at it in total?

Since the exhibition started in November I believe I have probably spent a couple of hours a day analysing the elements on the canvas and sharing opinions with my colleagues.

Tell us something about it that other people might not know.

There are so many objects within the painting to be noticed at first sight. After a couple of days I noticed a Christmas tree, a burger by the empty chair on the left — all of them very important elements. You can’t just look at this painting once.

What’s the most interesting thing about the gallery that’s not an exhibit?
The space itself is so interesting. I love the structure of the gallery, the sense of space and light and how these interact with the pieces in the room. With our current Body Language exhibition, the first thing you see on entering the building is the piece by Martinez. Your eyes are immediately drawn to it as soon as you set foot through the door. It contains so much religious iconography that it almost seems as though you’re walking into a church. The history of the building itself is also fascinating as it used to be an army barracks, which gives the gallery an unusual background.

You spend a lot of time in the same place. What do you think about while you’re at work?
I love art and I believe that I’m very lucky, because I work in one of the most important contemporary art galleries in the world. When I’m at work I spend a lot of time actually looking at the art. This allows me to read works very differently or to really try and think about what the artist is trying to achieve. Not many people get the same opportunity to really look at artwork in the same way. I also love the reaction of visitors and children to the pieces. Every day is always different and exciting.

Time completely changes my perception about the artworks. Sometimes at first sight, you might not understand it, but working here gives me the opportunity to come back and analyse the works again and again as opposed to simply reading about them or seeing their pictures in a book like a visitor. It is still “reading,” but in a different way.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
I try to visit as many exhibitions as possible. I also play the guitar and love cooking.

Tell us a funny story that’s taken place while you’ve been on duty…
I was at the reception and a visitor came to say how beautiful the collection was and then he asked: “But what does Saatchi mean in Japanese?” It left me speechless…


Arthur Carroll, White Cube Bermondsey

Explain as simply as possible what you do at the gallery.
My role is to make sure that the work being exhibited in the gallery isn’t damaged by visitors and also to answer any questions visitors might have about the work, the artist, or the gallery itself.

How long have you had your job?
I’ve worked here for a year and a half.

How did you first become interested in the gallery?
I used to regularly visit White Cube on trips to London and it became one of my favourite galleries.

What’s your favourite piece of work and why?
My favourite work is Darren Almond’s Apollo Sculptures from the current To Leave A Light Impression exhibition. Their shape is uniform with the minimal design of contemporary architecture and product design, but their polished brass surface reminds me of the many railings, gildings and decorations that adorn London’s longstanding establishments. In this way their only discernible features match London’s buildings, old and new.

What does it mean to you?
To me it is the embodiment of the foundations that London was built on.

How many hours have you spent looking at it in total?
One or two.

Tell us something about it that other people might not know.
As well as representing the weight of the Apollo astronauts, the sculptures weigh as much as the astronauts whose initials they bear. Many visitors have tried and failed to move them.

What’s the most interesting thing about the gallery that’s not an exhibit?
The on-site workshop.

You spend a lot of time in the same place. What do you think about while you’re at work?
Standing in a large white building for a living makes you think about everything from shopping to whatever drama happens to be going on in your life.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
In my spare time I make bespoke DJ deck tables in my south-east London studio. I also write a column for a Hackney-based zine on how to find warehouse properties and turn them into venues as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Tell us a funny story that’s taken place while you’ve been on duty…
A visitor snuck speakers into an unmonitored part of an installation that was being exhibited at the time and then played an audio file of two people having sex. It took us a while to find it.


Annette Skinner, Science Museum

Explain as simply as possible what you do at the museum.
I look after the objects and the visitors.

How long have you had your job?
16 years.

How did you first become interested in the museum?
My husband already worked here and he thought the job would suit me. It did.

What’s your favourite piece of work and why?
My favourite exhibit is the Vickers Vimy due to its size and its importance in history.

What does it mean to you?
It makes me smile when children say “Ooh, it’s so big!”

Roughly how many hours have you spent looking at it in total?
Most of the time, when I’m on position in the Flight Gallery.

Tell us something about it that other people might not know.
Most people wouldn’t know how it got into the gallery. As it’s on the third floor the wings were removed and a crane was used to lift it to the side of the building. All the windows at the side of the gallery had to be removed in order for it to be lowered into place.

What’s the most interesting thing about the museum that’s not an exhibit?
The corporate events that are held here. It looks very different for events when it’s been lit differently and dressed. It transforms the museum into a completely different place.

You spend a lot of time in the same place. What do you think about while you’re at work?
No two days are the same due to the variety of visitors that walk through the door but sometimes I think about what to have for tea.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
Housework, going to the gym and shopping.

Tell us a funny story that’s taken place while you’ve been on duty…
One day a lady came down the main set of stairs in the museum, approached me and asked where the stairs were to take her down!


Daniel Osborne, Natural History Museum

Explain as simply as possible what you do at the museum.
I patrol the galleries and help the public get the most out of their visit by assisting and directing them as required.

How long have you had your job?
Three years and three months.

How did you first become interested in the museum?
Most people first visit as a child, but I’m pretty sure I never did. I always had an interest in natural history and I think that comes from my Dad. I have fond memories of watching David Attenborough documentaries with him growing up.

I was probably in my 20s when I first visited the museum. I used to draw a lot of comics and used different parts of the museum for the background in one about me pondering death.

What’s your favourite piece of exhibit and why?
The giant sequoia, Sequoia giganteum. Its size and age are humbling. I like the information panels next to it, particularly the photograph of the loggers. I consider myself reasonably tuned in to the plight of nature, and am generally appalled by its treatment at the hand of man, but I can’t help finding that scene of them felling the giant stump romantic. Something about the time, maybe; their clothes are amazing. I like the idea of prospectors stumbling upon the bonanza of these unbelievably big trees and that first moment of looking up and seeing the width of the trunk and the incredible height. The settling of the west really stirs me.

What does it mean to you?
I’ve been to the West Coast of America and Canada and for me the landscape is paradise. The forests are monumental, the lakes and rivers are beautiful, the wildlife that the forests and coasts support is fantastic. I’ve been lucky enough to see black bears, sea otters, raccoons, bald eagles and humpback whales in the wild and I’ve taken advantage of having access to the museum’s libraries to read about the region’s wildlife and indigenous people. I’m completely sold on the place. I get a profound pleasure from thinking about being there. I’ve actually not yet seen a giant sequoia in the wild, but to know that they are there fills me with an awed sense of adventure and makes me very proud to be part of the world.

Roughly how many hours have you spent looking at it in total?
Ha! Maybe a week.

Tell us something about it that other people might not know.
When it was alive this tree would have had about a billion leaves.

What’s the most interesting thing about the museum that’s not an exhibit?
Well the libraries and collection areas are beautiful, and I could choose from the science, the history or the architecture, but for me it has to be the snooker table in the basement. I play every day on my lunch. My highest break is 45.

You spend a lot of time in the same place. What do you think about while you’re at work?
Bits of songs, especially ones I don’t know all the words to. I’ve had Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins in my head all day. “Something something something… when the sun goes down.”

I imagine myself jumping off things and across gaps, swinging on things, climbing parts of the museum or walking along precipitous edges. This week I’ve been trying to think of good answers to this question. I get bits from TV programmes in my head, usually The Simpsons orSeinfeld. I like to have imaginary arguments with rude visitors and think of witty and cutting things I should have said. I’ve also been writing a poem about my childhood in heroic couplets for the last year or so, and when I’m in the mood I work on that.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
Cook and read. My girlfriend and I have got into cryptic crosswords lately. I like Scrabble, I play guitar and make music with my band Western Red Cedars (.bandcamp.com). I watch American Football, ice hockey, baseball and snooker when they’re on. I’ve been listening to John Fahey a lot.

Tell us a funny story that’s taken place while you’ve been on duty…
This took place at the head of a long queue: Colin Firth approached one of my colleagues and said in his character-istically polite manner; “Hi there, I’m very sorry to ask but do you suppose there’s any chance that me and my family could go in without queueing?”

My colleague, an incredibly sweet lady from Thailand, who for whatever reason didn’t know who Colin Firth was, looked in astonishment at him and said; “Sir there’s a queue.”

Colin Firth smiled nervously and said; “Oh, I’m sorry, I understand that, but I tend to get recognised by people and it can sometimes be uncomfortable for my family, so I was wondering if there was any chance that we could go through.”

My colleague’s astonishment turned to outrage; “Sir everyone has to queue, it’s very busy.” Colin Firth apologised and obediently went to the back of the line to queue up.

I also overheard a schoolchild saying that the statue of Charles Darwin in the Central Hall was Zeus.


Rebecca Bearman, National Portrait Gallery

Explain as simply as possible what you do at the gallery.
I work within the gallery’s control room alongside the security team. My job is to monitor the ground floor of the gallery through CCTV cameras, which includes the temporary exhibitions and the contemporary collection. I monitor these spaces for any incidents that occur, like unattended bags and suspicious people.

How long have you had your job?
I’ve worked for the gallery for two years this January.

How did you first become interested in the gallery?
I studied an art and design foundation course and I spent a lot of time at the National Portrait Gallery researching. After that I did a degree in Photography, so have visited the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize every year since 2006. I always aspired to work in galleries or museums and applied to work at the visitor services department as I’m quite a people person.

What’s your favourite piece of work and why?

There’s a lot of portraits in the collection that I like for aesthetic reasons but there’s one I especially like, not because it’s a particularly impressive portrait to look at, but because of the sitter within the portrait and the amazing woman she was.

It’s of Radclyffe Hall, a novelist from the 1920s. At first I passed by without noticing it for weeks, thinking she was just another man in the gallery. Then I read the caption and realised she was actually a woman. Hall was an “invert” and described herself as a man trapped in a woman’s body. Although she couldn’t read well and classed herself as dyslexic, she wrote seven novels and in her heyday became a very successful writer. But her fame turned to notoriety when she published The Well of Loneliness, the novel she was most well-known for. The book was banned as it wasn’t acceptable in society to write a same-sex love story. James Douglas of The Sunday Express wrote; “I would rather give a healthy boy or healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel,” a damning response to a book that presented lesbianism as being natural and made a plea for greater tolerance.

What does it mean to you?
A lot. I value Hall’s valour, determination and eventual success in doing something no woman had done before. I feel she was a courageous woman, a pioneer for homosexuals and her novel was a landmark publication, which will be frozen in history as being significant as it deals with the emotions that “inverts,” or anyone who is different from society may struggle with. Women at that time didn’t have many rights, but Hall was a successful businesswoman and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for women within society in the 1900s. The publicity of the book’s legal battles increased the visibility of lesbians in British and American culture and for decades it was the best known lesbian novel in English. There are lesbians today who say that reading it changed their lives.

Roughly how many hours have you spent looking at it in total?
I present some of the gallery’s Portrait of the Day talks to visitors. Once a week I present my talk on the portrait of Radclyffe Hall, so I spend about 40 minutes a week looking at the portrait in great detail and discussing it with visitors during my talk.

Tell us something about it that other people might not know.
Although Radclyffe Hall is dressed as a man, she is in fact wearing a skirt. She’s often depicted wearing smoking jackets, monocles and with pipes from a very young age but I have never found an image of her wearing trousers with her jacket, always a skirt. I don’t know officially why this was but I would make an educated guess that she still wanted people to know she was a woman and proud of her liberal lifestyle, even though it was frowned upon.

What’s the most interesting thing about the gallery that’s not an exhibit?
The Heinz Archive and Library holds hundreds of books and references to all the pieces in our collection.

You spend a lot of time in the same place. What do you think about while you’re at work?
Most of the time I think about which characters in the gallery I can compile a talk about. I’m currently developing a talk on Mary English, another pioneering woman, who became friends with Simon Bolivar, The Liberator, leader of the patriot forces in South America during the wars for independence from Spain. She was an adventurer and businesswoman who was the commercial representative of the bankers Herring and Richardson while in Colombia.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
I love to travel and photograph the places that I travel to — this year I’m going to Paris, Budapest and Lake Como. Closer to home I love to explore London’s hidden gems and up-and-coming restaurants.

Tell us a funny story that’s taken place while you’ve been on duty…
Watching CCTV, as you would probably guess, does come with many funny stories, but we try to only watch for incidents. We do deal with daft interactions between visitors, like people asking “Do these stairs go down?” and when looking at an exit ask “How do I get out?” We take all silly questions in our stride but they do give us a giggle and a good story to tell in the pub.


Neide Gentelini, Victoria and Albert Museum

Explain as simply as possible what you do at the museum.
I’m responsible for visitors, staff, contractors and collections in a different gallery every day. Once or twice a week I work as part of the sales team.

How long have you had your job?
Almost three years.

How did you first become interested in the museum?
I’ve always liked museums and when my son was a child he showed great passion for them too, so we visited a lot. Soon his favourites became the Natural History Museum and Science Museum — the two great neighbours of the V&A. Although I love most museums, the V&A has been my number one since my first visit. I love the eclectic collections the museum houses and the unsurpassed events and exhibitions. As soon as my son started secondary school I had to apply to work here.

What’s your favourite exhibit and why?
Virgin with the Laughing Child by Antonio Rossellino. This is quite a small but amazing sculpture which speaks directly to my heart. I love the fact that, although it’s made with a very modest material — terracotta — it conveys the sense of a precious, priceless moment in time between two different generations. I also love the way the sculptor emphasises the natural humanity of the Madonna and Christ.

What does it mean to you?
Beauty, bliss and simplicity.

How many hours have you spent looking at it in total?
Days on end!

Tell us something about it that other people might not know.
We’re not sure who modelled it. Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci and Desiderio da Settignano are among a variety of 15th Century Florentine sculptors who may have made it. But it’s suggested that Rossellino made it between 1461 and 1466. It was probably a sketch model for a life-size marble group.

What’s the most interesting thing about the museum that’s not an exhibit?
The interlinked rooms by Morris, Poynter and Gamble were the first refreshment rooms inside a museum anywhere in the world. These three rooms are beautiful and are used as part of the museum’s café.

You spend a lot of time in the same place. What do you think about while you’re at work?
Some days I choose one object and try to learn as much as possible about it; other days I practise mind awareness, keeping my mind focussed on the here and now.

What do you do when you’re not at work?
I love reading, walking, visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions, practising yoga and listening to music.

Tell us a funny story that’s taken place while you’ve been on duty.
Once a couple asked me if I had a twin sister working in the museum. It was during a busy exhibition and I was working with the sales team. We change position throughout the day and I had greeted the couple in the cloakroom. Soon after, unaware, I answered their question while they were queueing to buy the exhibition tickets and finally I welcomed them into the exhibition.


This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Printed Pages Spring 2014.

Photographs by Luke Stephenson