Public space, petty officials and the National Gallery

“I have noted of late years a growing impatience on the part of the more luxurious portion of society of the amusements and habits of the workers, when they in any way interfere with their calm luxury; or to put it in plainer language a tendency to arrogant petty tyranny in these matters…”

William Morris

I got into an argument with security staff yesterday at the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery.

It started when I was told by one attendant not to drink water in the exhibition.

I thought this was a ridiculous command, and an invasive rule. I said I would continue to do so.


The National Galleries in London. It is becoming increasingly harder to go about your business in London without being policed for your personal habits

Then another man in a uniform told me the same thing, and I argued with him, told him it was a ridiculous rule and I would damn well drink whatever I please, wherever I please.

I then saw that same man whispering and nodding towards me with another “guard”. I thought, what the hell is this?? Am I living in Communist Russia?!

Maybe it is a small point, but it angered me beyond belief. I don’t wish to be told that I can’t hydrate myself in a public space…

It’s not about the water.

It is about the policing of things that are my private business, and the intimidating use of petty authority. I think it is quite sinister.

I tried to complain, and that angered me even more. I couldn’t speak to anyone of any note, and I felt even more like a faceless number in the crowd.

Look, it is common sense that great works of art risk being damaged. I understand that.

If they had politely asked that I use a proper sealed bottle that is designed not to spill, I would understand that. And if they asked me to be careful, I’d understand that too.

It was the context of the thing. The first of the “guards” gave me a weird look, like he was looking over me, like he’d spotted a prisoner about to escape.

I started asking him if I could take pictures and he snapped “no pictures” at me.

No pictures. No water. No food. No smiling. No questioning the security guards.

No fun! No end to this crap!!

The issue is about common sense. It makes sense to protect the art, but this is not something you can police like that.

As I told the attendant upstairs, this is a question of public space and public culture.

Increasingly, it is becoming difficult to simply go about your business in this city without some petty official getting in your face.

The definition of public space, is shared space. And the definition of sharing is voluntary community.

If we have to rely on petty officers to dictate whether or not we can drink water, and where we are allowed to do it, then we are no longer in shared space.

My citizenship is no longer voluntary, but now granted to me. That is not liberty.

Common sense, also by definition, cannot be authorised. What keeps a society together is not its rules, but the common decency of those who share public space.

There is trust involved, and also risk.

We must rely on the assumption that other people have invested just as much in a healthy shared space as ourselves.

When we start to police this common decency, whatever we claim to be the benefits, we can no longer claim that our society is one grounded in liberty.

Liberty requires common decency and voluntary sharing. When you police these things, it erodes the moral soundness of the society.


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