The Nearly DepartedFrom The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories & Legends by Michael Norman


A museum security guard was making his last rounds of the night. The third floor was quiet and, as he had expected, deserted at this late hour. The handful of visitors that day had long since gone home.

Nevertheless, it was part of Sam Rowan’s job to wend his way through the museum’s nine historic period rooms to make certain no one had become so enchanted with the displays of American and European décor that they’d lost track of time and become accidentally locked inside or that they’d decided to spend a quiet night in, for example, a grandly restored 1730 salon from the Hôtel de la Bouexiere in Paris.

Rowan was leaving the Queen Anne Room when something caught his eye.

Silhouetted in a contiguous doorway was a dark, indistinct figure-he had the impression it was a female-walking rapidly into the room from the brightly lit corridor. The backlighting cast her in deep shadow. Rowan himself was moving rather quickly through his rounds and had stepped past her before it registered with him what he’d just seen.

He hurried around the corner to the other door and then back through the doorway where he’d just seen her-to remind the person he assumed was a straggler that the museum’s hours were almost over.
She wasn’t there.

Impossible, he thought. He’d even heard the wooden floorboards groan under her weight.

A quick search confirmed what had been immediately obvious to Sam Rowan. He was the only living being in those rooms.

Since 1915 the esteemed Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors each year to its Whittier neighborhood home.

Considered one of the finest comprehensive art museums in the world, the MIA owns more than 100,000 treasured works of art from five millennia of history and most of the world’s great civilizations. From Egyptian cartonnages to New Guinea yam masks to masterpieces by Rembrandt, Poussin, and Monet and contemporary works by artists as varied as Chuck Close, Frank Stella, and Ansel Adams, the MIA’s collections are breathtaking in their diversity. Its notable achievements include extensive Asian, Native American, and modern art collections. Special exhibits are scheduled throughout the year. A 2006 addition designed by Michael Graves enlarged gallery space by one-third.

With its free tours, audio guides, numerous interactive learning stations, art library, and detailed directories, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is “dedicated to bringing art to life for everyone.”

But to at least some employees, more than art sometimes comes to life in the labyrinthine galleries and displays that comprise this Twin Cities museum.

For Sam Rowan it was his encounter with the “blurry, black shadow” coming through a door of the Queen Anne Room in September 1996 that persuaded him that not everything at the MIA could be characterized as a still-life. He had started work as a guard only a short time before. He might have wondered about the advisability of taking the job.

“I was pretty freaked out,” he says of his encounter that night. “I told [my supervisor] about it, but it turns out he was one of the other guards who had almost the same experience as mine. . . . He was pretty nonchalant about it. He was like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me a couple of years ago.’”

Each of the third-floor period rooms at the MIA depicts domestic furnishings and interiors from a number of different eras between the early sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. The Connecticut Room, for instance, represents the interior of a home in colonial America. Henry VIII would be at home in the Tudor Room, installed only a few years after the museum opened and its first period room. The English-themed Georgian Room displays British décor and design from the late eighteenth century.

The majority of the puzzling encounters at the museum seem to occur in or near these period rooms.

Sam Rowan remembers with clarity that late evening in September in the Queen Anne Room.

“I was making my rounds,” he recalls. “I was going out one of the doors, and what I saw was [a person] about my height, five foot seven or so. It looked like kind of a free-standing shadow, a blurry, black figure coming in toward me, less than three feet away, walking toward me. I was walking pretty fast, so I really didn’t stop. I was going to [say] we were just about to close. Of course, when I turned the corner, it was gone. I even heard the footsteps. I had the impression it was a female.”

Rowan says the brightness cast from the hallway’s overhead lights and from the hall’s wall-mounted display cases kept whatever it was in shadow. His immediate reaction was that she wasn’t anything more than an errant visitor who needed to be directed out of the museum.

Only there was no she to deal with.

The entire incident was brief, Rowan says, but long enough for him to believe that it was a person, or at least the shape of a living being, stepping into the Queen Anne Room.

“I’d say it was a ghost,” Rowan admits.

He was apprehensive after the encounter and tried to avoid those rooms for a while, especially after the museum closed for the night, but that’s difficult to do when you’re a museum security guard.

In time he became more curious about who or what he saw than anything else. In time he had little compunction about working around the period rooms.

“I was pretty scared . . . for a little while, but now, actually, I feel comfortable. I like being up there. I don’t feel threatened or uneasy. I enjoy it just fine. I decided if I see something, I see something. If I don’t, I don’t. Seeing something here at all is pretty rare.”

The supervising guard to whom Rowan reported the encounter had his own run-in with a similar walking shadow.

It had occurred several years before, but in the corridor only a few feet from where Sam Rowan saw the shadowy woman.

At one time a window in that hallway looked out on an interior courtyard. Remodeling has filled in that area with additional galleries, and an easily missed locked door now occupies the former window opening.

The guard was looking out this now-gone window at some courtyard activity below when he caught someone moving in the corridor walking toward him. He looked out the window for a few more seconds before turning to greet whomever it was approaching him. The hallway was empty. He was certain that someone had been there moments before.

Sam Rowan says he had his only other run-in with something he cannot easily explain several years later. It also provided him with some evidence that the first time had not been a fluke.

He remembers the second date quite clearly-March 11, 2005.
Although he maintains that the second experience was not as phenomenal as the first, others might disagree.
Rowan was again on his rounds, but this time he had just gone into the Northumberland Room, so named for its English country-estate furnishings.

“I saw what looked like another silhouette outline, but of just a leg from the knee down, the shoe and pant leg, maybe a little shorter than mine. But it looked like it was made out of shadow, dark not transparent, more detailed than the other thing [I saw],” he says.

The perambulating limb was striding along next to Rowan, keeping pace, totally synchronized. Yet while Rowan’s steps echoed clearly on the wood floors, the other footfall made no sound.

“I didn’t think anything of it, because subconsciously I thought it was probably just [my] shadow,” Rowan says. “But after I left the room, I thought that didn’t make sense, because the placement of where I saw [the leg] was right underneath the light. The shadow would have to have been cast from something.”

Rowan retraced his steps. He stopped at about the point where the leg appeared and looked around at the light sources. The chandelier above his head cast a shadow downward, but not in a manner that would account for what he’d just seen. There were no bright sidelights.

Besides, Rowan concludes, shadows are flat against surfaces and definitely not free standing and most assuredly not three-dimensional. And under no circumstances do they march along . . . alone.

Lori Erickson is a development officer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the resident expert on the ghost stories that circulate among the staff and visitors. She’s taken it upon herself to track down the tales and attempt to separate fact from hearsay. A studio art major in college and an accomplished photographer who also blogs and creates videos, Erickson has never had a ghostly experience at the MIA-though she eagerly hopes to one day.

If she does, she will have plenty of company, as she has found.

One paranormal group conducted an investigation with compasses, thermometers, and tape recorders. They came to the conclusion that a male ghost lived in the vicinity of the Connecticut Room and the Tudor Room and was very possessive of that area. He hung around near the rooms’ draperies and liked people. The group could not attach a name to the specter.

Unfortunately, holding any kind of investigation with electronic gear is very difficult in a modern museum such as the MIA, replete as they are with all manner of wireless communications and electronic surveillance devices, including video cameras and security motion sensors. Interference from the museum’s own equipment would cast doubt on any paranormal group’s findings should they use electronic gear of their own.

Sometimes, visitors are much more informal in their ghost studies. One group of curious visitors was discovered holding an unofficial séance in the Connecticut Room. The guards kept their eyes on them but did nothing to shoo them away.

Erickson believes the Connecticut Room may be the most haunted room in the MIA.

The same guard who discovered the séance told Erickson that once, when walking by the Connecticut Room, he saw a dark, shadowy figure lurking in the doorway. He also claimed to have found all the curtains on a four-poster bed drawn closed, when they are normally kept open. He assumed it was the work of a mischievous child. Perhaps, it’s the same child ghost who once pulled on a visitor’s coat only to vanish right in front of the startled guest.

Erickson says the Connecticut Room seems to be one display that for one reason or another bothers people. She says the mother of one employee refused to set foot in it, while a former guard-who moonlighted as a bouncer and body builder-made it clear to others that he disliked working around the Connecticut Room.

But some of the other period rooms have had their own episodes.

On a morning in mid-2007, a guard turning on the lights in the Georgian Room heard a chair scrape back from the center table, as if someone had just stood up. People have also reported hearing children’s laughter in the same room (a painting of children hangs above the fireplace in the room).

Not everything unexplained occurs in the period rooms, however. Erickson says a cleaning woman reported being locked in a bathroom in the new Target wing of the MIA before locks were installed on the doors.

The origin of any resident ghost at the MIA would be hard to establish. There has been only one documented death in the museum. A workman died of a heart attack several years ago as he was installing a display in connection with the MIA’s annual Art in Bloom exhibit. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the man’s unfortunate death and the museum’s ghost stories.

Some believe that physical objects can retain the living souls once associated with them or that various pieces of furniture can bring along their own ghosts.

At the MIA a large, disquieting oil painting of a woman, entitled Mrs. T in Cream Silk, No. 2, figures in one of the more famous, albeit doubtful, ghost tales there. The 1920 work is by George Wesley Bellows and hangs in an out-of-the-way corridor on the first floor.

Once, an unnamed guard fell asleep while working the late shift in the glassed-in communications center. He was supposed to have been monitoring the museum’s many video cameras when he decided to take a short snooze.

He was brusquely awakened by an insistent tapping on the outside of the window. When he looked up, a wrinkled old woman decked out in a brocaded, cream-colored gown scowled and shook her finger at him, as if scolding him for his dereliction of duty. She then floated through the closed door, into the room, and vanished.

The guard recognized the woman as the subject of Bellows’s painting.

Perhaps, the stories of Mrs. T scolding a sleepy guard began in part because of the unsettling nature of the artwork itself.

In the nearly life-sized painting a woman identified only as Mrs. T stares balefully out of the frame, her gray hair tucked under a lace head covering trimmed with small roses. Her gloved hands rest demurely in front of her, holding a dainty lady’s fan and a small purse.

Not only does she have a bit of Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham about her, but the gaze from her brooding, deep-set eyes seems to follow, to watch, as one passes by. It is a technique that the artist used with particular skill in this portrait.

And yet the peculiar Mrs. T and her eyes do not in actuality move anywhere, at least not on a regular basis.

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