I got in big trouble a few weeks ago at the Morgan Library Museum, which is one of my favorite places. I’d just gotten my new membership, and I went with a lady who I like very much and who also loves the Morgan. She’s someone who will stand and read every handwritten letter on display in the glass cases, and every little description of who wrote each letter, and those, she says, are often her favorite of everything currently exhibited.

A beautiful window at the Morgan

After going through the Rotunda and reading the letters, we went into one of the gallery rooms. I don’t remember the specific painting we were looking at, but it had some details in miniature that one of us pointed out to the other.

Suddenly a guard appeared from around a corner and shouted, “No pointing! No pointing!” He then went into a spiel about how pointing is NOT PERMITTED and that we were in VIOLATION. One of us told him that neither of us had touched the glass over the painting or even come close, but that just agitated him more, and then even more loudly he said: “You pointed! Like this!” And he jabbed his finger in the air. “No pointing! You must not point! Don’t point!”

As we left the room, the guard made a decorous, formal bow and thanked us for coming in. The whole thing felt ridiculous and theatrical, but at the same time embarrassing, with other people looking at us as if we’d gone in and made tentacle fingers all over everything on the walls. It took the fun out of our visit, that was certain, so we left.

Out on Madison Avenue, my friend told me a funny story about her grandmother, a very proper and refined lady who lived to a very advanced age. My friend told me how she’d once taken her to a museum for her 85th birthday. Her grandmother was curious about a large painting by Richard Serra, a very black, heavily textured work of art, and she reached out to touch it with the tips of her fingers. A guard hurried over and quietly told her to not touch, whereupon her grandmother said, “Oh, but I only did this,” and she reached out and touched the painting exactly as she had just done. I knew and respected my friend’s grandmother and imagining her doing such a thing, in all innocence, made me laugh.

The following week, my friend and I decided to go to the Morgan again. We went up to one of the galleries on the second floor, where there was a beautiful display behind glass of a large collection of tiny leather stamps in great variety, once used to imprint leather-bound books. Each stamp had gorgeous detail, and none were larger than the flat head of a nail. We both found them delightful. “Look at this one, the little skull and crossbones,” my friend said, and just then, a very petite but terrifying lady guard tore around a corner and announced to us: “You’ve been reported! You can’t be pointing and touching!” The expression on her face was somewhere between fury and despair.

I started to tell her that neither of us had actually touched anything, but she interrupted me with, “Shush! Shush! Don’t talk! You cannot point!” Then she too went into a loud, admonishing spiel. We had been reported, and we were on notice! She scolded us about how close we were. Much too close! The whole display could come crashing down because of us, she said. And in the same embarrassing way as the week before, people passing by were taking all of it in and giving us the kind of dreary looks reserved for the kind of people we obviously seemed to be. I asked the guard how far from the display I would need to be in order to point something out to my friend. She waved her finger around in a vague way and said, “Like this.” After she’d finished her scolding, she said, “Now, welcome to the Morgan.”

By then our hearts weren’t in it anymore, so we left. Out on Madison Avenue, we wondered aloud what was happening. In all the uncountable visits we’ve both made to the Morgan Library over so many years, we’ve never been spoken to at all by a guard. Now we’d been publicly and loudly admonished two weeks in a row, by two different guards in two different rooms, for pointing. And what did it mean when the second guard said, You’ve been reported? Someone had to be watching from an office somewhere, but we hadn’t touched a thing. There were no signs saying Pointing Prohibited. Was this just part of the creeping authoritarianism that seems to be currently permeating everything? My friend said it felt like the Stasi.

Not long after that, I told another friend of mine (my hairdresser), who also likes the Morgan, about what had happened. She thought I should tell the museum. “I’d tell them it’s psychologically damaging, that it took something from you,” she said. 

When she went herself to the Morgan a week or so later with a friend, they both did everything they could with pointing and touching to see what might happen. But nothing did. Nobody seemed to care at all, in fact, which surprised them.

Maybe I and my museum friend just have a questionable look about us. Like two ladies who might suddenly dump soup all over everything the way all those climate change activists enjoy doing. Whatever it was, it did take something from us—all authoritarian ham-handedness does—it took away a little bit of the familiar that the Morgan has always been. So, from now on, rather than point out some tiny detail or objet to anyone with me, I will just describe its vicinity: “The lower left corner, about three inches up—no, down an inch and over a little—” with my hands safely clasped behind my back. 

28 May, 2023 Copyright Romy Ashby

1 comment:

  1. I was embarrassed many years ago on my first visit to the Louvre when I took a picture of some headless and/or armless statue. The flash went off by accident, and the guard yelled at me, "No flashé! No flashé!" Worse than pointing, I would think, but I don't believe I was reported.