Connected \\ June 10, 2020

Holding down the fort

As PEM’s Chief of Security, Facilities Operations and Planning, Bob Monk has been living between two worlds. His 12-hour days require a focus on present needs at the museum, such as keeping artworks and empty buildings safe, while overseeing maintenance projects. But his attention never strays from the future and formulating a plan to safely open to the public.

A close up of Bob Monk wearing a mask in front of a model ship in a gallery

Bob Monk. Courtesy photo.

Monk was instrumental in opening PEM’s new wing in September 2019 and then was on to the next project — creating a master plan for PEM's campus. But the global health crisis created a total pivot. “The objective right now is to get through the pandemic,” Monk says. “Right now the focus is on righting the ship.”

While facilities and security people are used to being in the museum when things are closed, a totally empty space on a sunny spring day certainly feels strange, says Monk. “You can walk through a gallery and feel privileged to have the whole place to yourself with beautiful and compelling objects. But that very quickly becomes overshadowed by loneliness and sadness. You can turn all the lights on — all the way up — and the place just isn't as bright without people.”

Two young children sitting on a stool look at a big computer desktop screen in a room witha artifacts on the wall

Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

What he wants more than anything, says Monk, is the place full again, of toddlers for PEM Pals on Wednesdays and visiting school groups coming in from all over. “But you can’t think like that without realizing that there could be a real danger in that,” he says.

You go right back to — how do we make this place safe? We all thought that closing the museum was going to be difficult. After a few days, you realize that was the easy part. Getting it open safely is going to be hard.

In the course of a career in facilities operations, dealing with some sort of disaster is inevitable, says Monk, who has been at PEM for 21 years. But no one could prepare for how different life would be in the spring of 2020 with a pandemic. The museum world has been having an ongoing conversation about limiting the number of people in a gallery, the handling of ticket sales, sanitation protocols and masks required at all times.

A red sign on a glass door that says PEM is closed temporarily

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

While the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston was first to open in the U.S., PEM hopes to reopen this summer, which means Monk is on video conference calls with PEM’s leadership and leaders of other regional museums, sometimes for several hours a day. He was featured in this Boston Globe story that focused on strategies for opening museums in the area.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

After 11 weeks of closure, Monk and I chatted about those who were not able to work from home — the 30 people who still showed up to work at the museum during closure. I followed up with three of them:

A woman wearing a black mask next to a stone sculpture of a Foo dog

Tina Emmith. Courtesy photo.

Security Guard Tina Emmith
Though each identical day can feel like the movie Groundhog Day, says Security Guard Tina Emmith, she has felt grateful to have a place to go during the health crisis. She can’t wait for a day that feels different — when the rest of the staff and the guests join her at the museum.

Moments that stand out in her 15 years at PEM are a food event called The Art of Taste Event with Siddhartha Shah, Curator of Indian and South Asian Art, where she met Ted Allen from the Food Network show Chopped and celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan. She also loved the Pride dance party last June. See more about this month's Pride event HERE.

A couple in a dark red room with lights twinkling and a silver dance ball

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

A fan of PEM’s Asian Export Gallery, Emmith says that while being in the museum over the last few months she has observed: “The objects just sit in the dark. They have a story to tell. We need to light them up and emit some positive vibes.”

East Indoa Marine Hall exterior at night

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

One thing that has been glowing lately is Emmith’s favorite object at PEM. Kū is a temple image from Hawaiʻi that has been in the collection since 1846. When the front of the museum looked dark, PEM’s master electrician shined a light on Kū, visible from the street.

A close-up of aman wearing a grey mask and a black shirt

Henry Rutkowski. Courtesy photo.

Master Electrician Henry Rutkowski
“Early on I lit him, so he could bring hope,” says Henry Rutkowski, PEM’s Master Electrician.

Looking back over his 17 years at PEM, Rutkowski recalls meeting icons like world renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and rock star Kirk Hammett. “Kirk Hammett called me a ‘lighting surgeon,’” he says, relaying what had to be a career high. Of all the works at PEM now, Rutkowski especially loves Charles Sandison’s installation in East India Marine Hall, with its projected 19th-century ships and captain logs covering the walls and ceiling.

One of the things Rutkowski is looking forward to is his hobby as a Revolutionary War reenactor, calling it his “release from reality.” His two worlds converged one year when in October his group of costumed players had the pleasure of sleeping on the lawn of his favorite PEM historic property, the Crowninshield-Bentley House.

A man wearing a revolutionary wardrobe walking on grass through a cemetary

Courtesy photo.

In the meantime, Rutkowski has been putting in long days, upgrading the museum’s lighting systems. His daily routine consists of making sure his son does his home-schooling and going by Ziggy’s, the family donut shop on Essex Street, for his morning coffee before punching in at 8 am.

A few visitors in a dark room with many lights.

Photo by Mel Taing/PEM.

There is no doubt that Rutkowski is a social creature, eager to see his colleagues again. “It is too quiet,” he says, “and very sad not having guests or colleagues around.”

A man wearing a colorful mask in a building made ofgrey stone

Kevin Hudson. Courtesy photo.

Lead Security Supervisor Kevin Hudson
“Walking through sometimes all you hear is your own footsteps and the occasional jingle of your keys,” says Lead Security Supervisor Kevin Hudson. Hudson is helping prepare things for when some staff return to the museum’s offices again. A long list of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines must be followed for 25 percent of workers to return this month. “That real face to face interaction has been greatly missed,” says Hudson, who started at PEM in 2001 while in college.

It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago, the new wing opened, with “energy and enthusiasm,” says Hudson, whose daughter was one of the lucky kids who helped christen the new School Groups Entrance during opening celebrations.

A crowd of people waiting to enter a building under a banner of red ballons

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

When asked what he has enjoyed on PEM’s campus during closure, Hudson says, “I've always had a soft spot for our historic homes … Even the museum building itself is an amalgamation of building upon building built over time, each with their own story to tell.”

View of a kitchen and living room in a historic house

Crowninshield-Bentley House interior. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

As staff members slowly begin to return to the museum offices and plan for the reopening of the museum, Monk reflects on one object in the maritime gallery that he could identify with during these quiet months of closure.

“One thing that signifies isolation more than anything is the calendar stick,” he says, referring to a stick a sailor, remarkably named James Drown, used to mark time after an 1804 shipwreck marooned him on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “We’re not subject to all the hardships that fellow was … 126 days or something like that.”

A piece of wood with markes carved in it.

James Drown, Calendar stick made on Tristan da Cunha, 1804. Wood. Museum collection, about 1805. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Actually, it was 161.

“I forget all the notches that were in there,” says Monk. “But we’re coming close.”

The museum staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

A yellow house with a cast iron fence that has a blue banner

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

Front view of the entrance to PEM

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

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