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Night at the Museum

Ah, Halloween. Everyone loves a good ghost story, right? Well, the Art Institute is full of them…

The guards who walk the dark, should-be-silent halls of the museum at night have loads of creepy stories to share. The ex-Goodman Theatre, which was torn down to make room for our new Modern Wing, is rumored to have been haunted. At night, after doing the final lock-up of the empty building, guards would often hear strange sounds: sets being moved around backstage, faraway voices, doors closing. Many saw shadows moving around the stage; one guard, just before Christmas, looked up from the darkened set of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” to see what appeared to be the Ghost of Christmas Past hovering just above the stage. Another claims that if she walked in at the beginning of her shift and announced that she needed all the ghosts to be quiet that night, it would be silent. If she forgot, she faced a long evening of frightening noises and shadows.

One of my favorite stories, however, happened in the Asian galleries. An Art Institute employee took a break to have a quiet moment in the Ando gallery, a meditative room containing a grid of dark wood columns, as well as low benches for visitors, and an elegant space to show Japanese screens, pots, and vases, all immersed in low light. Out of the corner of his eye the employee, who had been alone in the gallery, saw an ethereal woman dressed in a white silk dress, floating above the floor, through the columns. (Interestingly enough, Japanese ghosts are said to have no feet, and are often depicted in white, signifying white burial kimonos used in Edo-period funeral rituals.) This event initiated a series of odd and disturbing events that happened over a period of months. A former curator decided to intervene in the haunting and chase the visiting spirits out of the gallery, performing, shall we say, a curatorial exorcism. Behind a large screen, out of the public’s eye, he installed an easel, on which he placed a Japanese woodblock print of Shoki, the Demon Queller.

Shoki was known for his power to ward off danger and drive demons away, protecting people from evil spirits and illness. And guess what? Just so you can sleep tonight…it worked. The Ando gallery has been peaceful ever since.

I bet the Museum Shop might start stocking a poster of Shoki for your own home, if you need him on Halloween night…

Okumura Masanobu. Shoki, 1745. Woodblock print. 58.9 x 25.7 cm. Clarence Buckingham Collection.