Keep your eye out for some ugly-ass bollards around the downtown museum.
Keep your eye out for bollards near this entrance of the downtown museum. Photo via SAM
If you managed to trudge your way through our hot-ass downtown to make it to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) this weekend, you might have noticed two reddish stone bollards installed in an alcove near the museum's Hammering Man entrance. The museum installed the bollards last week, and many SAM workers refer to the bollards as "hostile architecture" placed to deter houseless people from putting up tents around the building.

Last Monday, this group of workers at the SAM publicly launched a petition calling for the museum to quit installing hostile architecture around their downtown location. The petition also called on the museum to halt its efforts to hire an outside security company, which could station security guards outside the museum seven days a week.

In a statement to The Stranger, the museum said these policies come as they have experienced an "increase in physical violence and threats to our staff with makeshift weapons" at the downtown location. Last week, SAM director Amada Cruz wrote in an internal email to staff that "several SAM staff have been physically threatened in the last few weeks, one with a broken bottle," and that "another was actually punched." In the email, shared with The Stranger by staff, Cruz said she "will not risk the safety" of any staff members. SAM's press representative confirmed these incidents.

The museum said to The Stranger that "these incidents are not exclusively arising from our unhoused neighbors." They explained the choice to hire external security and the installation of the bollards as allowing "our frontline staff to focus on what they were hired and trained to do inside the building."

SAM's press representative confirmed the installation of stone bollards near their 1st Avenue and University Street entrance last week. And near the 2nd Avenue and University Street emergency exit, the museum has left up two panels of plywood from their pandemic closure, making the alcove much smaller.

The bollards preventing people from pitching a tent near the 1st and University entrance.
The new bollards, which could prevent people from pitching a tent near the 1st and University entrance. Photo via SAM Workers

The workers' petition, titled "Keep SAM's Unhoused Neighbors Safe," calls the museum's new policies "anti-houseless." It suggests alternatives, which it says are supported by the museum's security staff, such as installing a portable bathroom and sharps containers on the property, giving out basic supplies to the houseless, and undergoing an "additional (harm reduction-based) training for current security." As of this post, the petition has garnered over 230 signatures.

"We believe there are alternative policies and solutions that would offer the museum an opportunity to be a leader amongst downtown properties as a positive and productive member of the community," reads the petition.

Some of the hostile architecture installed at the museum. A false wall prevents people from setting up tents.
The false wall, to the left, can prevent people from setting up tents. Photo via SAM Workers

In the same internal email where Cruz mentioned physical threats to museum staff, a museum security supervisor wrote that the bollards "would not really prevent anyone from sleeping there but they would prevent a tent." The supervisor stated the museum's goal isn't to "get anyone arrested" or prevent sleepers from resting around the building, as they have "not had much of a problem historically with regular sleepers and there’s no reason to try to prevent it now."

On Sunday, I went down to check out the bollards and ran into Sheronda Denise Williams, a woman who said she's slept and camped around the building "for a couple of years." I found her posted around one of the bollards near the 1st and University entrance, huddled between the bollard and the wall to get out of the scorching sun.

She told me she used to set up in the alcove on 2nd and University, but the plywood barriers prevented her from continuing to do so. And while the new installation of hostile architecture on 1st may prevent a six-person tent from going up, she said, folks could still lay down between the bollards.

Another view of the plywood near the 2nd and University emergency exit.
Another view of the plywood near the 2nd and University emergency exit. JK

In an interview with one of the petition organizers (who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the museum), they said efforts around removing homeless people at the downtown location started more aggressively in the past year while the museum was mostly closed to the public.

The petition organizer said that when the non-supervisor security staff—who are mostly charged with guarding the museum floors and staff entrances, and running dispatch—was informed of plans to hire outside security and install the bollards around the downtown museum, they were against the new policies.

The organizer expressed concern that more beefed-up security would result in more police involvement during the removal of houseless people. Many of the current non-supervisor security staff members were interested in receiving harm reduction-based training themselves to handle situations outside the museum, this representative said. However, these concerns and suggestions went unheard by senior staff at SAM, leading to the circulation of this petition last week.

In the museum's statement, they said they have "collaborated with the City and the Downtown Business Association’s outreach programs to connect people to professional services and support," but so far haven't been "successful at mitigating the danger from some individuals."

The museum said the external security support they are looking to hire at their downtown location will be similar to the ones hired at the museum's Olympic Sculpture Park: "unarmed" security with "specific training, including de-escalation and other harm-reduction methods."

The workers' representative admitted that there have been needles, feces, and other belongings left around the building that their Environmental Services department—the janitors—is expected to clean up. While the group respects that it's "not fair" to the staff to clean up hazardous waste, they felt the museum took a top-down approach to solve these problems instead of consulting with security or janitorial staff affected by the change.

Back outside the museum on Sunday, Williams said that SAM has never tried to prevent her from sleeping around the building. She added that it would be helpful if the museum provided sharps containers, needles, and blankets to members of the houseless community. When I asked her what she thought about the bollards, she said: "We can use them as seats."