I hadn’t been working long at the V&A when the current crisis struck. Less than six months, but already I had discovered that this was where I wanted to be. There is something about the V&A that is hard to describe but makes it a wonderful place to go to work.
When it was announced that Museums were to close in order to help stop the spread of Covid-19 one small, but essential, department knew that they would be staying onsite to look after the museum. The security section, where I work, is responsible for many things, paramount being the safety of the visitors and staff, closely followed by looking after the objects, buildings, fixtures and fittings – this obviously had to continue through lockdown.
It wasn’t just a case of switching off the lights and locking the doors for a few weeks. A lot had to be done, and done quickly, to ensure that the museum and its contents would remain safe and secure.
In the weeks, and then days, before the final lockdown – while curators, conservators and other back-of-house personnel were preparing to leave the museum – the Security Supervisors (or ‘Sierra Deltas’ as they are known to staff) were revisiting and rewriting procedures for lockdown (as well as dealing with the day-to-day security concerns of the still-open museum).
For us, it was important to provide a visible sense of safety to the staff and visitors through a presence ‘on the floor’. Even though a lot of modern security can be done remotely, nothing beats human contact and the Sierra Deltas and Behavioural Detection Officers pounded the museum beats, reassuring everyone whenever there was a break from our closedown preparations. It worked both ways. The best part of our job is interacting with people, and although there were fewer people inside the museum it gave us a chance to get to know the front-of-house staff better. The V&A is rightly proud of its Visitor Experience team – they’re a brilliant mix of characters, experts, enthusiasts and generally lovely people. It made me realise how much I was going to miss them once they were gone, even for a short while.
By the middle of March it was noticeable that there were fewer and fewer visitors from overseas and tourists, and that some sort of lockdown would probably be imposed. We were keeping in touch with colleagues from the other South Kensington museums, as well as contacting other institutions in London. We also kept an eye on what was happening in the rest of Europe, incorporating international experience into our own plans. Our plans for the V&A were being made and discarded on a daily basis as the situation changed.
When we were told officially that the museum would close we had less than a week to get our process delivered. The senior management worked 24/7 to get policies and organisation in place, changing shifts and juggling staff as half the team developed coughs and were asked to stay at home as a precaution.
Then the main doors were closed and locked. A surprisingly emotional time. A lot of the security team have worked at the V&A for a long time, and closing the doors to the public was a major moment for them. The museum had stayed open throughout the blitz and the second world war, the terrorist attacks in the seventies and eighties, and after the 9/11 attacks. Watching people go home through the staff exit on that day was an experience I will not soon forget. A lot were shaken – for many of the staff the museum is much more than a job, it is a part of their life and it was now changing. The question we were asked a lot was ‘How long before we can come back?’ and none of us had an answer.
At first it was unclear who would be classed as ‘essential workers’ by the government, and who would be allowed to travel into work. Even so, the guards and officers stepped up – although some of the frontline team had been home on holiday in Nepal, and found themselves away for the foreseeable future. Then, within a short while, one of our officers succumbed to the virus and our mood changed. Losing a colleague is always hard, and our workmate will be missed. We kept going despite this, and I’m proud of the professional way we kept going even as more colleagues became ill, some hospitalised, and others were furloughed.
Initially our work involved making sure that all the windows had been closed, and the doors locked. I now know that the museum has a lot of windows and thousands of doors, literally! This was followed by ‘housekeeping’ tasks such as checking that taps were turned off, lights and non-essential electrical gadgets in the offices were off. Ensuring that exhibits were stable and secure, assisting technical services to cover delicate objects. Making sure that offices were locked, equipment secured away and repeated and continuous checks of the alarms and technology. The public may have been grounded, but the objects still needed to be secure.
The first days in the empty museum were eerie walking through the deserted galleries. The lighting was reduced to the bare minimum to reduce light levels – but also creating a shadowy world of dark corners and silhouettes. Although the electronic security systems can see in the dark, we humans are not so gifted and often patrol by torchlight. Not a task for the faint hearted or for those with an over-active imagination. Out of the corner of your eyes, the statues seem to move, and there is definitely something lurking in those dark corners!
And of course there is the ghost.
Objects move when there’s nobody around. Books jump from shelves and angels shed their wings. Mirrors crack from side to side, and doors open even though examination of the CCTV shows that nobody was there and none of the sophisticated alarms or sensors were activated. Now, it may be that with the draughts, storms and traffic and tube vibrations, objects move a fraction of a millimetre each day until they pass the point of balance and then simply fall over. Or there may be another explanation…
It’s not just a case of wandering through the seven miles of exhibits, checking that they are all there. There are the basements, back of house, offices, studios and storerooms to patrol. The Security Supervisors and the Behavioural Detection Officers check and examine the artefacts minutely for signs of deterioration. Every day. The cases and rooms are fitted with sensors, not only to prevent theft or damage, but also to monitor humidity and temperature to provide an early warning of possible damage. Very little beats the Mark-1 Eyeball examining the surface of object for any signs of impending change. With the lockdown rules preventing many curators and conservators from coming to the museum, this task has fallen to us, and in these past weeks we have come to know the objects intimately.
We have also been doing other tasks. Checking on objects in store rooms. Examining bug and rodent traps (something that wasn’t mentioned in my job interview!) and crawling in, under and around cabinets to read the more cantankerous temperature and humidity sensors.
And don’t mention the leaks! The V&A is old, some parts approaching the double century, and the estates department is constantly fighting to repair the Victorian roofs. We have spent some time rushing around with buckets and rags!
Now, with a light shining at the end of the tunnel we’re gearing up for the gradual return of staff and public. Passes have to be renewed, vetting carried out, authorisations extended. Our management team is planning the safety aspects of operating a museum with coronavirus still a threat, and we’ll be assisting and advising them as much as we can.
Speaking for myself, it’s been hard work at times, but I’m really looking forward to having the staff back, I’ve missed them and there’s a lot to catch up on. Over 1000 people work at the V&A. The Gallery Assistants with their encyclopaedic knowledge of the artefacts, the conservators and their enthusiasm, the curators, events staff and volunteers. As well as the staff though, I miss the visitors. The members, the tourists; the eccentric and the intense. Everyone. As they walk through our doors again I hope that, if they look at one of the security staff, they’ll read the message in our eyes … Welcome back.