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Where is Norman Rockwell when you need him? Ode to The Grumpy Hallkeeper, the Peanut Butter Floor and Ms Koons

Classic joke about the attendant: "Proudly, the Rijksmuseum's new attendant reports to the museum management at the end of his first working day. 'Mr director, I think you will be pleased with me. I have already sold two Picassos and one Apple today!' " (Source:

Underlining the supposed relationship of the traditional attendant to modern art.

Mummifying alongside Rembrandt

(Photo HT)

Who doesn't know him, the archetypal attendant sitting old, lonely and full of incomprehension, mummifying (free after Jeroen Brouwers) next to a Rembrandt or three piles of sand. When I visited the (old) Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue in Manhattan's Upper East Side in 2014, for a mega-exhibition by Jeff Koons, one wall attracted great interest from many visitors. On it hung a metre-high photograph of the artist full of sizzling horniness, in active pose with his then-wife and porn actress Ilona Staller, or 'Cicciolina'. Ms Koons revealed herself in generous spontaneity.

The attendant does his thing

Jeff Koons exhibition at old Whitney Museum (image HT)

It was not the artwork that attracted the most attention. It was the combination of the sculpture and the attendant standing next to it. An angry white man standing with a grumpy head doing his job. Two different worlds touched each other, the contraire visual rhyme arousing hilarity. The scene would lend itself perfectly to a drawing of Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post. Which would probably have given the famous illustrator a short career in his day - the middle of the last century. I stealthily rushed to take a picture, pictured here and not directly intended for children's eyes.How would the attendant tell about his working day at home in Queens in the evening, we wondered.

Curator with art penis traits

I thought of the attendant last week while watching The Square. The Golden Palm winner from Swedish director Ruben Östlund is a fascinating satire on art world, a must-see for any serious museum-goer. The main character is curator Christian of a Stockholm museum, an arrogant flail with art penis traits and a servile court of hip young men and women. He is divorced, messing around with women and meanwhile making one bad decision after another. Little remains of his so-called (artistic) integrity - Christian drives a Tesla - outside the museum walls. In and around his work, he does shadowy things that take him spinning towards ruin.

Exploding toddler

Installation in Watou (image HT)

The film has as many layers as Amsterdam's Rembrandt Tower. The dichotomy in society, indictment of individualisation, cutting parody on sneaking and striving of godlike curator and staff in modern museum with public money, vanitas (haircuts, museum director with dog), the most idiotic viral ever by bouncing off an exhibition with an exploding toddler... everything comes along. The Square counts enough pompous scenes for ten years of Zomergasten. The performance with the hopping and squawking ape-man at a gala dinner, already a classic, makes you question all the values of modern art.

The central question, or at least that's how you can look at it: how far can you go under the guise of art? In The Square, the phenomenon of the attendant plays a casual yet pressing role three times. The first time, you see a female attendant sitting idly in a room full of piles of plaster, waiting for her working hours to end. 'Art,' Christian no doubt thinks, unless he gets in trouble from an overzealous cleaner with modern cleaning machine. The second time, we see a recognisable image of an attendant-student, waving visitors through to the right direction on autopilot. She can see in advance from their walk and behaviour where they want to go: not right to the Modern Art department, but left to The Castle.

Musée des Beaux-arts in Tournai (image HT)

Cute little uniform

These days, guards come in all shapes and sizes, from the modern hostess in snazzy uniforms to the gruff professional usher in his oversized black suit. I remember a story by 'good old' Godfried Bomans. In it, an attendant - and I am drawing on memory for a moment - is asked by a visitor: 'Sir, is this statue Early or Late Etruscan?' To which the attendant immediately kicks the visitor out of the museum and has the spot the visitor was standing on cleaned with lysol.

Purple hippopotamus

I visited the 'Musée des Beaux-arts' (1928) in Tournai (Tournai), housed in a fine building you would rather expect in a big French city like Lille. It was designed by art nouveau architect Victor Horta. The long, sloping façade is adorned with a green-trimmed bronze sculpture group. Inside, the halls are arranged like rose petals around a central atrium, above which a purple hippopotamus flies. The collection is rich: 15th-century Tournai-born Rogier Van der Weyden is present, as well as Rubens, Manet, Monet, Bruegel the Elder, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille (photo HT)

On the Monday afternoon of our visit, it is dead quiet at the entrance, apart from a hobo in a spiked suit sitting in front of the glass door smoking. The entrance - at a rural price - is pleasantly village-like. The man behind the counter kindly points to my rucksack: 'You can take it with you, but I'd also like to put it under my chair.' Such a museum.

In the first room hangs a towering painting: The abdication of Emperor Charles V by Louis Gallait, starring our Guillaume d'Orange Le Taciturne, alias William the Silent. In the back, two paintings by Édouard Manet, the pride of Tournai, hang silently. As we walk towards them, the man in a denim suit comes running at a brisk pace with a folding chair slung over his shoulders. He turns out to be the mobile attendant and, with a haggard look, positions himself between the two Manets, but this time without a cigarette.

'Do you understand everything?'

At Lille's Palais des Beaux-Arts, attendants are often fast-dressed art students, happily huddling together but happily providing visitors with contemporary information from 'horse's mouth'. In small, poverty-stricken museums, volunteers are advancing.

Shot at Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar (photo HT)

We had been inside Museum Beelden aan Zee in The Hague for three minutes when a volunteer assailed us. A 60-plus woman with a short grey hairdo cut differently on two sides, gold earrings in purple checkered cloak patch; in short, charming lady from the Benoordenhout area with oceans of free time. She asked us: 'Can I help? Do you understand everything?' Also nice.

1100 litres of peanut butter

Supporter are at least as interesting as the museum itself and often add something. Who would you rather see next to the 'Peanut Butter Floor' (by Wim T. Schippers, required material: 1100 litres of peanut butter)? An angry, grumpy man in a greasy suit full of museum stains and a big V on his rever, or a jolly student who comes to catch you up?

I'll go for the former and like to see him as part of the installation. (Where is Norman Rockwell when you need him?)

Elisabeth Moss

Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille (image HT)

In the third scene with attendant in The Square, we see head curator/shutterbug Christian in a quiet corner of his museum in a -like conversation with journalist Anne, a sparkling supporting role by Elisabeth Moss. In a corner of the room, an attendant eagerly listens to the conversation from behind an installation almost tilting on the two legs of her chair.

The moral of the story: the museum supporter is the trait-d'union between the museum and the outside world.

All for art!

Harri Theirlynck

Freelance (travel) journalist. Graduated cum laude in Dutch language and literature from Radboud University Nijmegen. Worked as a teacher, comedian and science journalist. Then successively became editor-in-chief of (ANWB) Kampioen, NU De Tijd van je Leven and REIZEN Magazine (ANWB Media). Since 2013, freelancer for Pikas Media, REIZEN Magazine (ANWB), Kampioen, TravMagazine, Djoser, de Telegraaf, Blendle and Arts & Auto, among others. Teacher of (travel) journalism at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. Provides training courses in creative & business writing and travel journalism.View Author posts

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