The Museum Guard: Keeping Lincoln Artifacts Safe

May 29 marked the final day Ford’s Theatre will display the Ford’s 150 special exhibition Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination. This hallmark exhibition reunited—for the first time since April 1865—an extraordinary collection of artifacts that were in the Theatre or carried by Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination.

Though Silent Witnesses is no longer on site, Ford’s Theatre will continue to explore questions of preservation in a world-premiere play, the comedic drama The Guard by playwright Jessica Dickey. The Guard opens in a modern-day art museum where three individuals yearn to experience first-hand the wonder and glory of Rembrandt’s work, in order to further understand the artist. One of the three individuals is a museum guard, who decides to touch a famous Rembrandt painting even though this means he will threaten the integrity of the work.

This desire to touch famous objects isn’t limited to art patrons alone. We spoke with Washington, D.C., security guard Kevin Gray, who worked in Silent Witnesses, about what it’s like to watch over Lincoln’s belongings, 150 years later.

The Secret Life of a Museum Guard

When visiting a captivating exhibition, it can be easy to forget about the men and women working to protect the objects you enjoy. Guard Kevin Gray points out that guarding art and historic objects alike is challenging. Since these objects are “very sensitive, fragile, very valuable,” they require a high level of security to protect against incidents of fire, theft, damage, personal injury, assault or other unsafe conditions.

While guarding Silent Witnesses, Gray has to stand upright for hours and also work overnight to ensure the artifacts are protected.

However, Gray’s favorite shifts are daytime hours, when the exhibition is full of visitors. He says, “I get to meet, greet and interact with people from all over the world, and of all ages and backgrounds.”

Ever Vigilant

Gray admits he has seen visitors try to touch objects he’s guarding in the past, just like in Dickey’s play The Guard. More often in Silent Witnesses, Gray must stop visitors from trying to take photos of the artifacts. The priceless objects in Silent Witnesses are incredibly delicate and need to be kept at extremely low light levels to ensure they are preserved for future generations.

In general, Gray describes visitors as respectful and fascinated by the artifacts. As a guard, he enjoys watching as visitors experience the exhibition for the first time. He says his favorite part of the job is “observing the faces of guests who come to the exhibition and seeing the glow in their eyes as they observe historic objects from more than 150 years ago with awe. Most can’t believe how well preserved they are. I have been thanked several times by guests for my dedication and also knowledge of the objects.”

He explains, “It’s not easy being on your feet for hours, but [interacting with] people makes it so much easier. I learn something every day.”

What Lincoln Left Behind

In Dickey’s play The Guard, the guard who decides to touch a particular Rembrandt painting is fascinated by the artist, and desperate to literally feel closer to his art and legacy. Working for Silent Witnesses, Gray says his time spent amongst artifacts related to President Abraham Lincoln has made him feel closer to our 16th president.

Gray’s favorite item in Silent Witnesses is the collection of items from Lincoln’s pockets on the night of the assassination. “They, to me, reflect the humbleness of this great man—he even fixed his own glasses! To me that speaks volumes. It shows he was not a materialistic person [and someone] who did not see himself as better than an average person.”

For Gray, the meaning of Silent Witnesses extends beyond the walls of the gallery at the Center for Education and Leadership. Gray believes Lincoln’s humility and legacy mean he “will be forever thought of and missed by the masses.” He adds, “Lincoln had the courage to do what no president before him had. He united a divided country.”

Why Museums Matter

Gray’s time with Ford’s Theatre has reinforced his thoughts on the importance of museums and historic sites. He reflects, “Ford’s Theatre is a place that matters to the masses and should always be available to them.” Visiting Silent Witnesses “isn’t just about seeing items, it’s about collectively honoring a great man.” When touring Ford’s, “people can come together to honor and remember this country’s greatest president and his legacy. [Here they] pay their respects and honor his life forever more.”

Whether keeping silent watch or sharing all that they know with visitors, museum guards may be the unsung heroes of the museum world. Individuals like Gray and his cohorts ensure that these priceless belongings may be shared with future generations.

Missed the exhibition? Take a video tour of Silent Witnesses with Ford’s Theatre curator Tracey Avant.

Learn more about the upcoming Ford’s Theatre production of The Guard.

Sara Cohen is Marketing Manager at Ford’s Theatre, where she helms the Ford’s Theatre Facebook and Twitter accounts, among other projects that share Lincoln’s legacy with the world.