Many of the rooms at the National Gallery were closed last week. More than 200 staff were on their second five-day strike over plans to outsource security and visitor services. In the rooms that were open, the remaining attendants were hovering awkwardly near their chairs. CIS, the private contractor brought in to staff the recent Rembrandt exhibition, bans its employees from sitting down. I asked one of them how he felt about the arrangement. ‘I honestly don’t know why they’ve put chairs here,’ he said. ‘But I like walking around, it means I can speak to people. If I was sat down nobody would speak to me.’
When CIS was drafted in last autumn, a gallery spokeswoman told me the exceptional circumstances of the show demanded a new approach: ‘Obviously Rembrandt is a major international exhibition and we wish to be able to ensure maximum access to the public.’ But they showed no signs of leaving when the show closed last month. The staff union, PCS, was concerned the company had been brought in to break resistance to the outsourcing plans. The union also fears that CIS is being lined up to step in when the full contract goes out to tender in May. One rep – speaking anonymously after the gallery threatened disciplinary action against staff members who speak out – said there was now a large surplus of gallery staff on shift at any given time.