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Andy Warhol, Men in Black, and False Teeth—20 Years Guarding the Guggenheim

Todd Murphy

Todd Murphy on the roof of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. All photos: Caitlin Dover

A view of Central Park from the roof of the museum.

A view of Central Park from the roof of the museum.

Todd Murphy

Murphy looks through the telephone books that still hang outside the wooden phone booths on the ground floor. “Nobody asks for the phones anymore,” he says.

Detex key

This long-defunct “Detex” equipment was once a part of Murphy’s daily rounds as a guard. The key fitted in a device worn around the neck, logging his visit to that checkpoint. Murphy recalls that, until 1992, “We used to have the 4-12 guard take the flag down at closing time (5 pm), fold it correctly, and that guard would pass the keys, Detex clock, and the flag over to the midnight-to-8 am guard. The midnight-to-8 am guard would have to put the flag up before 8 if we were open to the public.”

Entry token

Murphy treasures this entry token he found years ago in the museum’s basement—a relic from a time when visitors entered through turnstiles.

exterior decoration

Exterior decoration that predates the addition of the galleries can be seen inside.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building for the Guggenheim Museum at 1071 Fifth Avenue has inspired scholarship, played a starring role in films, and appeared on magazine covers. It’s safe to say the place is well known. But few know it as intimately as Todd Murphy. For more than 20 years, Murphy has spent most of his days and many of his nights in the museum. First as a guard, and now in his position as security department supervisor, Murphy has come to know every corner and curve of the building—no small feat in a museum whose layout is far from conventional.

Murphy’s deep understanding of and fondness for the museum was clear as he gave me a personal tour on a gray November day. As we walked around the ramps, through the galleries, and up and down back stairways, he was able to point out every closet that had once been an entryway, every door that had once led to an office. Murphy doesn’t just carry a map of the museum in his head—he carries layers of its history.

This close relationship with the Guggenheim is not something he envisioned when he first started working there as a guard in the late 1980s. He stopped by the museum one day with a friend who was picking up his paycheck, and walked out with a job of his own, starting the next week. Four more of his friends from his hometown of Jersey City were employed there at the time. “We were all from the neighborhood, right around the block from each other,” he recalls. “We’d all meet in the morning and get on the PATH to come and work.”

That work could be challenging. At the time, guards stood in one position from 11 to 5 pm, with only two short breaks. (Things are much different today: the guards stand at various posts, and get three 40-minute breaks.) But he and his friends had camaraderie to get them through the day, racing each other to see who finished their rounds the fastest. Back then, doing rounds involved a heavy device, something like a giant, leather-encased pocket-watch, that they wore around their necks, and into which a key from each of the building’s 22 wall-mounted metal boxes had to be fitted to log the guard’s visit to each checkpoint.

Exploring the Guggenheim with Murphy is a lesson in the details that make a safe yet welcoming home for art. Together, we climbed to the roof, where I looked out over a stunning view of Central Park, shrouded in mist. Murphy pointed out the heavy fabric coverings on the oculus (the large, central skylight above the rotunda) and the smaller skylights that encircle it; he explained that when an exhibition of paintings is on the ramps, as with the current Christopher Wool exhibition, these are covered to keep sunlight off the artwork.

Peering over the side of the building, Murphy recalled, “I was up here when they shot Men in Black on the roof. They had a crane out there and they were holding a guy on a rope [as he ran up the side of the building].” Murphy has been at the museum for countless film shoots, and has met any number of luminaries visiting the Guggenheim. As we headed back downstairs, he shared some of his favorite encounters: Andy Warhol, spotted on the ramps not long before the artist’s death; Larry David; and Tony Bennett, with whom Murphy discussed Goya.

Back inside, we visited the gallery where Robert Motherwell: Early Collages is currently on display. Murphy retrieved a child’s umbrella with a handle in the shape of Spider-Man that had been left lying on a bench. “Spider-Man umbrella, Spider-Man umbrella,” he intoned into his intercom. According to Murphy, visitors leave all kinds of things at the museum: in summer, sunglasses; in winter, gloves; and always “lots of umbrellas.” Most poignant among these forgotten possessions are the many sketchpads he has found over the years, filled with drawings. One of the oddest items he’s found? A set of false teeth.

Visitors’ actions can also be odd, on occasion. Once, when Murphy was working the elevator, he had a dramatic moment: “I was up on the sixth floor, and opened the door to let everybody out, and I see somebody roller-skating down Ramp Five.” Thinking fast, he took the elevator down a floor, and as the skater zoomed by he reached out and pulled him swiftly inside. Murphy says others over the years have clearly had a similar plan, but he’s wise to it: “A lot of people come in with their skateboards, and we watch them. It’s not gonna happen.”

Everywhere we went, I was impressed by Murphy’s familiarity with the building. In one gallery, he pointed above us to something I would certainly have missed: where the newer addition meets the original building, part of the exterior decoration—a beautiful scalloped pattern just below the ceiling—was left intact.

Murphy’s interest in the art he protects has grown over the years. He recalls seeing Van Gogh’s letters on display in the museum in his early days, and not appreciating them at the time. Now, he wishes he could get another look at them. Most of all, though, he points to his fondness for the people that make up the museum’s community: “I love everybody I work with here. I love it here. I’m not going anywhere.”

  • MichaelJWilson

    False teeth seem to be a universal favorite “strange lost item.” From the website of London Transport’s Lost Property Office: “Items received range from the everyday (bags, clothes, glasses), through to the interesting (full suitcases, electronic devices, crutches, and baby buggies) through to the downright bizarre (false teeth, breast implants, wedding dresses, and a theatrical coffin).”

  • MichaelJWilson

    According to a report in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/oct/18/arts.artsnews1), a painting by British street artist Banksy wound up in Tate Britain’s lost property office back in 2003. I wonder if it was ever reclaimed?