REVIEW: All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley
A fascinating, revelatory portrait of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its treasures by a former New Yorker staffer who spent a decade as a museum guard.
Millions of people climb the grand marble staircase to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art every year. But only a select few have unrestricted access to every nook and cranny. They’re the guards who roam unobtrusively in dark blue suits, keeping a watchful eye on the two million square foot treasure house. Caught up in his glamorous fledgling career at The New Yorker, Patrick Bringley never thought he’d be one of them. Then his older brother was diagnosed with fatal cancer and he found himself needing to escape the mundane clamor of daily life. So he quit The New Yorker and sought solace in the most beautiful place he knew.
To his surprise and the reader’s delight, this temporary refuge becomes Bringley’s home away from home for a decade. We follow him as he guards delicate treasures from Egypt to Rome, strolls the labyrinths beneath the galleries, wears out nine pairs of company shoes, and marvels at the beautiful works in his care. Bringley enters the museum as a ghost, silent and almost invisible, but soon finds his voice and his tribe: the artworks and their creators and the lively subculture of museum guards—a gorgeous mosaic of artists, musicians, blue-collar stalwarts, immigrants, cutups, and dreamers. As his bonds with his colleagues and the art grow, he comes to understand how fortunate he is to be walled off in this little world, and how much it resembles the best aspects of the larger world to which he gradually, gratefully returns.
In the tradition of classic workplace memoirs like Lab Girl and Working Stiff, All The Beauty in the World is a surprising, inspiring portrait of a great museum, its hidden treasures, and the people who make it tick, by one of its most intimate observers.
Do not go into this book expecting stories about funny experiences or hijinks in the museum. Instead this is a very thoughtful memoir of how Patrick Bringley sought solace and a place to “just be” after the death of his older brother and after his own realization that he needed to escape the rat race publishing job he had in NYC. Remembering the family trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, Bringley applied for a position as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is a job that pays you to stand and watch, and – if you want – to think. Where you don’t have to “do” anything, sell anything, push anything at anybody and you get to do this all day – or evening – long. Needing some head space to mourn his brother, he begins ten years of wearing a cheap blue polyester suit, wearing out ten pairs of shoes, and using his $80/year allowance for socks all while getting to soak in some of the most glorious artwork in the world. From ancient Egypt to 20th century rural Alabama quilts, from a newly designed Islamic gallery, to pointing out where the “irises” are (Van Gogh), and helping frazzled mothers (who didn’t realize that art is all that the museum has – no dinosaurs or other hands on stuff) with rambunctious children head towards the mummies and medieval armor.
Bringley learns the rhythm of the museum, which galleries he prefers (the ones with wooden floors are easiest on the feet), which individual artworks he enjoys most, that working the Met Gala is a bust (he got stationed too far away to see anything), and gains a new appreciation for all the artists who have captured humanity and human feelings and experiences over the millennia. He can pick out various “types” of visitors and discovers the ones he enjoys the most (those without preconceived notions who are willing to open themselves to the artworks, unafraid to admit ignorance, ready to learn).
He gives a behind the scenes glimpse of how the museum works, the variety of guards (about half are immigrants and many are older – some coming to the job in middle age), becomes a father, and begins to realize that he’s ready to try something different now. It’s an amusing, pensive, informative book that I enjoyed reading. B
Throughout the book, Bringley talks about several works of art at the Met and a few other museums and at his website he has a list with links to view them.
About a year ago the Baltimore Museum of Art had an exhibit of art from its collection chosen by its guards. I thought the exhibit was fascinating, and I very much enjoyed the guards’ comments about why they had chosen the pieces they did. The personal histories of the guards were also interesting, and often linked to the pieces chosen.
Jayne I saw you were reviewing the book and bought it. Love Metropolitan museum so much that I already started reading it. Thank you
@Sirius: Yay, I hope you enjoy it, too.
@Susan/DC: Thanks for linking to that. I like their taste in art!
Bringley mentions that most of the Met guards have their favorite pieces and he talks about how he has interacted with visitors who asked him questions.