Morning at the Museum

The Main Gallery of the Phillips with an ashtray next to the couch, 1963. Photo from Phillips Collection Archives.

A couple of days ago I got locked out of my office. I was on my way back from getting a cup of coffee when my badge stopped working, and I found myself stuck in a gallery (a gallery that will not be named) with a cup of coffee and nowhere to go. At first I panicked. This is the kind of scenario that would normally make me break into cold sweats– after all, a bottle of water in the galleries is strictly forbidden, let alone a steaming cup of joe. However, these were extenuating circumstances and as the museum was closed (it was a Monday) I was allowed to wander the gallery with my coffee in peace and quiet while the security glitch was fixed.

This proved to be a fantastic experience. There is something undeniably spine-tingling about being in a museum alone before the doors open to the public; the artworks hum and vibrate with an energy that is almost imperceptible when crowds are wandering the halls. Just listen to Met curator Wolfram Koeppe’s account of what it’s like for him to be in the museum after hours. Of course, my experience occurred pre-hours, so to speak, but it gave me a taste of what it must have felt like to visit The Phillips Collection back in the museum’s early days.

People who have worked at the Phillips for years love to tell stories about days of yore in which people were allowed (encouraged, even, as the ashtrays in vintage photos like the one above imply) to smoke in the galleries. In an oral history Laughlin Phillips, Duncan Phillips’s son and a former director of the museum, remembers that his father enjoyed smoking in front of paintings, fancying himself an artistically inclined Edward R. Murrow as plumes of smoke billowed out from behind a canvas he was contemplating. According to Laughlin, Duncan Phillips felt that smoking helped him concentrate. Others reminisce fondly about the casual nature of the museum: the days when the Music Room housed a ping-pong table and billiards, or how the Phillips was a favorite destination for dates where couples could canoodle on the couch in a relaxed atmosphere.

Although drinking coffee in front of a painting was a far cry from the nicotine and couch-crashing glory days of the museum, it was still a unique experience.

Amanda Jiron-Murphy, In-Gallery Interpretation and Public Programs Coordinator

4 thoughts on “Morning at the Museum

  1. Great post! I remember when I worked at TPC (about 10 years ago), I loved Mondays because the museum was closed to the public. I could walk through the galleries and be the only one with the paintings. I will always remember that fondly.

  2. In the late 60s I used to sit in a Barcelona chair looking at the Braques and Picassos with my little daughter asleep in my arms . . . and generally alone there. Occasionally I’d go upstairs to visit Kokoschka’s painting of Lyon and the little room full of Klee’s work. But the seating was best in front of the Braques.

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