When Patrick Bringley’s beloved older brother was diagnosed with cancer, he found he was fed up with his ritzy job in the events department at the New Yorker. Life then revolved around hospital rooms and love and “all the very basic things” in this world; there seemed no point in hanging his jacket over his desk chair every morning. But what to do instead? In 2008, Tom passed away, and all Patrick knew was that he needed the kind of work that didn’t involve scraping and scraping and constantly ‘struggling’. Soon after, on a whim, he applied for a job as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by the fall he was standing there in his uniform alongside Raphael’s Enthroned Madonna with Child and Saints – the first position in a job he would like to hold for the next 10 years of his young life (he was 25 at the time).
“I knew I wanted something simple and nutritious,” he tells me over video calls (he lives in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and two kids). “But it turned out to be much more than that. I immediately felt that there was something extraordinary about it. Everyday office life is hectic. You always have a project in mind; You always push the ball forward. Suddenly I had this drop gone. I was in a gallery. My hands were empty, my head was up and I was committed not being busy. There was nothing I should do but keep my eyes open. A wave of freedom washed over me. In the silence I could wander with my thoughts.”
Eight hours a day he found himself in the gentle embrace of hundreds of beautiful objects, an experience that eventually proved so profound that he was moved to write a book about it. As he puts it today: “When writing about art, encounters with things are often missing – and that’s funny, because it’s this community that draws people to the museum in the first place.” Perhaps he could correct that.
Each day, the guards have to go so far as to each receive a “hose lump sum” — an annual payment of $80 for socks
All the beauty in the worlda memory already praised by at least one of his former colleagues at the New Yorker, explores this community through a series of extended encounters with specific objects: the 1st century BC Temple of Dendur; BC, which stands in the Egyptian galleries; an Iroquois (Native American) turtle shell rattle from the Met’s collection of musical instruments; a photo series by Alfred Stieglitz about his artist wife Georgia O’Keeffe; a Crucifixion by the 15th-century Italian Fra Angelico, which Bringley decides he would take home if he could; and many others (the book includes an appendix listing all the works mentioned and where to find them).
But it also does many other things. The Metropolitan Museum is huge. The collection is the size of about 3,000 average New York City apartments and includes more than 2 million objects, or approximately one per square foot of available gallery space. It’s like a city-state, with several smaller empires – its 17 curatorial departments – operating more or less independently. They, in turn, are supported by hundreds of other workers. The museum employs 2,000 people, of which the guards are the single largest group, numbering 500. So Bringley makes himself the anthropologist of the institution, carefully explaining its rituals to the rest of us, who can only dream of what goes on behind the many doors we’re not allowed to go through. The Met attends 7 million each year, by the way, and he analyzes them too: their reactions to what they see, whether they’re worried or happy; her many questions, some reasonable and some very stupid (e.g., “Where is she mona lisa?”).
It’s all so interesting – and also sobering when you’ve never really given a thought to those whose job it is to watch you whizz through the latest blockbuster show. At the Met, guards must go so far each day that they each receive a “hose allowance”: an annual payment of $80 for socks. (The museum also employs a tailor to adjust and repair their uniforms.) The guards work mostly alone in the galleries, with only their sore feet as company, but they’re also a close-knit community that reflects New York’s overall social makeup: Almost half are first-generation immigrants, with a significant proportion originally from Albania, Russia and West Africa. The workplace is unionized and relatively secure, which means vacancies are sought, although most have to work overtime to make ends meet.
There is art that shines all the brighter when you let the sun hit it rather than a laser
“People stay late,” says Bringley. And is the museum working on them as it worked on him? He thinks it’s a mix. Everyone is proud of the place – how could you not? – but some are more persistently intoxicated than others. “The keeper I call Joseph in the book, who was one of my closest friends when I worked there, had his farewell dinner recently, and he told me something extraordinary that I wish I could have put in the book. His favorite gallery is the Astor Chinese Garden Court [a display built in the style of the Ming dynasty]. Joseph is from Togo and will be retiring to Ghana which is next door and he has shown us pictures of the house he is building there – and it will include his very own version of Astor Court.” He smiles. Does he keep in touch with his old colleagues? “Oh yes. I see them often.”
Of course there were dull times in the galleries: afternoons when his back ached and all he could think about was getting on the subway to go home. But boredom also has its uses in art. There are, he says, different ways of looking at objects, especially when you’re a guard who can revisit them over and over again. You can be purposeful and read each curator’s notes. Or you can choose to let yourself drift; to see a little smarter, out of the corner of my eye: “Sometimes this kind of passivity gives art new dimensions. There is art that shines even more brightly when you let the sun hit it than a laser.” He learned to trust his instincts through his years at the Met. Beauty, he insists, elicits a response in us just as clear as something funny, only it’s quieter and more timid to show up. In his case, it’s a tremor in his chest, a tremor he’s as likely to see when he looks at a quilt sewn by cotton pickers in Alabama, or a painting by Monet or Picasso.
why did he leave According to his own statements, he could have stayed without any problems. It was a combination of things. His sadness had subsided. His mind was increasingly drawn to life outside the building. His body began to get restless. But even after the decision, he was “spoiled by everyday office life”. It was only after he landed a part-time job as a tour guide in Manhattan that he finally handed in his resignation.
Was it a wrench? “Yes. There was something so perfect about this job for me. It was like this big shell around me. But I found I wanted something that wasn’t so perfect — and writing a book certainly is.” Absolutely case, everything is still there, waiting for him. He can visit whenever he likes. And nothing really changes. As he notes in his book, it’s often the viewer who has changed in some way when the Met In the decade he spent there, several wings were renovated and hundreds of new objects were acquired, but mostly works of art from 50 centuries are only 10 years older.
So is the Fra Angelico still a favourite? Or was it replaced in his memory by another treasure? He thinks for a minute. He’s reluctant to sound like someone who collects baseball cards or anything. But yes, in his eyes it remains a wondrous thing. What a strange and powerful combination of peace and drama! “There are these figures at the foot of the cross,” he tells me, his voice rising as he speaks. “They are John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, and they bring comfort to Mary who has fallen to the ground.” He recognizes the moment. He believes it has spoken to people of all faiths and none over the centuries. “The artist explores this idea that even when the world seems to stand still, it is still moving and this reminds us all what we need to do, which is to get to work. Go out and try to be good people.”