The guards at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts are up in arms about proposed changes to their jobs, including new security models and inflexible schedules that they say will force many long-time employees to resign.
The guards are members of MISU, the Museum Independent Security Union, which was founded in 1995. The union’s president, Evan Henderson, says that Nicki Luongo, Director of Protective Services at the MFA, is fulfilling the museum’s longtime desire to crush the union.
According to Henderson, Luongo is trying to transform the guards into “best-in-class security,” which means that the guards will go through extensive training to prepare them to handle disasters like battling active shooters, rather than focus on protecting the art or interacting with visitors. Henderson says that Luongo will “rely heavily on her camera installation throughout the building to ‘protect the art.’”
While you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks museums should have fewer cameras, it is certain that cameras and alarms do not stop people from touching the art; by the time someone watching a monitor notices some indiscretion, it’s too late. It’s already happened. “We have seen a major increase in visitors touching and damaging artwork,” Henderson said. “We have even had many visitors come and complain to us and the museum that they see others touching things and that they are disgusted with the lack of protection of the art. This is what Luongo created.”
“If there are not enough guards available, then galleries don’t get covered,” said Gary McManus, a 19-year veteran of the MFA. “Many of the reports we get from our command center are from galleries where there are no guards visible, and people take chances and touch things they normally wouldn’t.”
McManus points to the museum’s current exhibit, the spectacular Class Distinctions, where he says you will find four guards working in the galleries because the loaners of the paintings – some of the biggest museums in the world—require it. “What do they know that our director does not?” he added.
“The new technology will not change people’s behavior,” said McManus. “Alarms scream daily, but visitors are oblivious to the source.”
The presence of guards in museum galleries is indeed an invaluable component to both the enjoyment of visitors and the protection of the artwork. I happened to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Saturday, and there were a handful of instances where the guards had to step in to correct bad behavior. If the guards hadn’t been there, each of the situations I witnessed could have ended very differently. Oddly enough, it was after that visit that I ran into Henderson and his colleagues picketing on Huntington Avenue.
Last week, the guards were informed that new schedules would be implemented on Jan 3. Schedules, Henderson told me, that the museum already knows the guards won’t be able to pull off, thereby forcing them to quit. Rather than regular, full-time guards getting off work at 5:15 pm, the proposed schedule change would have them working until midnight. Henderson says that this will greatly affect those that are parents, especially single parents, most of whom have a long commute and couldn’t possibly work until midnight. “With this ‘new security model’ and ‘take it or leave it’ schedules, people are being laid off through attrition,” said Henderson.
“The Museum is union busting subtly. They will try to make the forced quitting seem like the employees’ decisions. They have already told us they are not willing to offer packages to anyone who cannot work the schedules. No one will be able to claim unemployment. Smart folks, those union busters.”
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.