Meet The Caretakers: keeping Cutty Sark safe during lockdown

Cutty Sark has been closed for months - but that doesn't mean the ship has been deserted.

Lockdown may have kept visitors away, but it hasn't stopped Royal Museums Greenwich's security team. They have been working round the clock as usual to keep the ship safe.

As part of her new project The Caretakers, artist Eloise Moody spent weeks working with one member of this vital team, security officer Alex McDonald. 

Alex documented his experience of life on board Cutty Sark, sending audio recordings from his night-time patrols to Eloise. 

Now, as Cutty Sark prepares to reopen, you can hear for yourself what Alex thinks, sees and feels as he walks the quiet decks.

Listen to Alex's account below, and read more from the artist Eloise about what she hopes The Caretakers tells us about our treasured museums and galleries.

As I typed the words ‘Hi Alex’ for what felt like the hundredth time, asking if there was any chance he could try to record the sounds of the masts creaking during his shift, I wondered if I was maybe testing his patience.

I imagined him bursting onto the top deck of the Cutty Sark, silhouetted against the night sky, shaking his fist at the heavens and cursing the day he signed up for this project*.

For someone I’ve never met in person, I now know a great deal about Alex. I know his shift patterns, what time he starts and which site he may be working on. I’ve listened time and again as he’s gone on patrol through the museum, sharing his routines and personal responses to the extraordinary world in which he works.

Lockdown restrictions have meant it’s been more of a challenge to engage with people on a project like this, especially when you have never met them in real life. I have been entirely restricted to communicating via Zoom and email - not the tools I would naturally select when asking people to share what can often be very personal thoughts and experiences.

I also had to train everyone to make the best quality recording possible – using only their smartphones.

It was important for me to capture not only Alex’s thoughts, but also the sounds and atmospheres of the different spaces in the boat: the footsteps, the jangling keys, the creaky doors and radio chatter, all of which would help listeners feel as though they were actually on board with Alex.

From the very start, Alex has been a gift. He’s got a great voice, he’s thoughtful and funny. I knew from our initial chat that he would be capable of something really unique.

This project explores what sort of information we value in connection to museum collections. We are all used to facts, dates and academic knowledge being the way through which we experience objects or spaces of historical significance. Alex could have given me what could be found in a guidebook or online.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he gave something much rarer – a chance to be with him and his thoughts in the middle of the night inside a cultural treasure. And from that was born something really special. We hear him reflecting back on his life and sharing his thoughts as he does his rounds. Things that may seem everyday to him sparkle for the listeners.

Each of the six Caretakers I have worked with for this series have been very different people who have brought very different perspectives to the project. But they have all been incredibly generous with their time and willingness to open their hearts. Alex created multiple recordings and from these, myself and my wonderful Audio Producer, India Rakusen, have found and connected different strands, interweaving them and building what feels to me like an audio poem of sorts.

I find Alex’s episode especially moving and hope that by spending just seven minutes in his company, you will feel that you have encountered the Cutty Sark in an entirely fresh way.

* He has since told me he has actually enjoyed the process