‘In the stillness, my mind was able to wander’: how a museum guard found solace in art | Autobiography and memoir

‘In the stillness, my mind was able to wander’: how a museum guard found solace in art | Autobiography and memoir

When Patrick Bringley’s beloved older brother fell ill with cancer, he found that he no longer had much appetite for his ritzy job in the events department of the New Yorker. Life then was about hospital rooms and love and “all the very basic things” in this world; there seemed no meaning in hanging his jacket over his desk chair every morning. But what to do instead? In 2008, Tom died, and all Patrick knew was that he needed the kind of work that would not require him to scrap and scrape and constantly “muscle his way forward”. Soon after this, acting on a whim, he applied for a position as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by the autumn, there he was in his uniform, standing next to Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints – the first post in a job he would happily hold down for the next 10 years of his young life (at the time, he was 25).

“I knew I wanted something straightforward and nourishing,” he tells me when we talk via video call (he is in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and two children). “But it turned out to be much more than that. I had a sense straight away there was something extraordinary about it. Office life is busy. You’ve always got your mind on some project; you’re always pushing the ball forward. All of a sudden, I had that drop away. I was in a gallery. My hands were empty, my head was up, and I was duty bound not to be busy. There was nothing I was meant to do except keep my eyes open. A wave of freedom washed over me. In the stillness, my mind was able to wander.”

For eight hours a day, he found himself in the gentle embrace of hundreds of beautiful objects, an experience that ultimately proved to be so profound, he was moved to write a book about it. As he puts it now: “When art gets written about, what’s often missing is the experience of being face to face with stuff – and that’s funny, because it’s this communion that draws people to museums in the first place.” Perhaps he could put this right.

All the Beauty in the World, a memoir that has already been praised by at least one of his former colleagues at the New Yorker, explores this communion via a series of extended encounters with particular objects: The Temple of Dendur from the 1st century BC, which stands in the Egyptian galleries; an Iroquois (Native American) snapping turtle-shell rattle from the Met’s collection of musical instruments; a series of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz of his artist wife, Georgia O’Keeffe; a Crucifixion by the 15th-century Italian Fra Angelico, which Bringley decides is the one thing he would take home with him if he could; and many others (the book comes with an appendix listing every work mentioned, and where to find it).

But it does plenty of other things as well. The Metropolitan Museum is huge. The size of about 3,000 average New York apartments, its collection comprises more than 2m objects, or roughly one per square foot of the available gallery space. It is like some city state, inside which several smaller empires – its 17 curatorial departments – operate more or less independently. They, in turn, are supported by hundreds of other workers. The museum employs 2,000 people, of which its guards number 500, the single largest group. Bringley, then, makes himself an 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 through which we are forbidden to walk. Visitors to the Met, incidentally, number 7 million every year, and he analyses them as well: their responses to what they see, whether discomfited or joyful; their many questions, some of which are sensible, and some of which are very silly (for instance: “Where is the Mona Lisa?”).

Bringley outside The Temple of Dendur.
Bringley outside The Temple of Dendur. Photograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer

It is all so interesting – and chastening, too, if you have never really given much thought to those whose job it is to watch you whiz round the latest blockbuster show. At the Met, guards are required to walk so far every day, they each receive a “hose allowance”: an annual payment of $80 for socks. (The museum also employs a tailor, to adjust and mend their uniforms.) Guards work, for the most part, alone in the galleries, with only their sore feet for company, but they are also a close community, one that reflects the wider social makeup of New York: almost half are first-generation immigrants, a substantial proportion of them originally from Albania, Russia and west Africa. The job is unionised, and thus relatively secure, and this means that vacancies are sought after, even if most do have to put in overtime to make ends meet.

“People do stay for a long time,” Bringley tells me. And does the museum work on them as it worked on him? He thinks it’s a mixture. Everyone takes pride in the place – how could you not? – but some are more lastingly intoxicated than others. “The guard I call Joseph in the book, who was one of my closest friends when I worked there, recently had his retirement dinner, and he told me something extraordinary that I wish I’d been able to put in the book. His favourite gallery is the Astor Chinese Garden Court [a display built in the style of the Ming dynasty]. Joseph is from Togo, and he’s going to retire to Ghana, which is next door, and he showed us pictures of the house he’s building there – and it’s going to come with his very own version of the Astor Court.” He smiles. Does he stay in touch with his old colleagues? “Oh, yes. I see them frequently.”

Of course there were boring times in the galleries: afternoons when his back ached and all he could think about was getting on the subway to go home. But even boredom has its uses when it comes to art. There are, he says, different ways to look at objects, especially if you are a guard, able to visit them again and again. You can be purposeful, reading every curator’s note. Or you can choose to drift; to see things more slyly, out of the corner of your eye: “Sometimes, that very sort of passivity gives new dimensions to art. There’s some art that shines all the brighter if you let the sunshine hit it rather than a laser.” He has learned, thanks to his years at the Met, to trust his instincts. Beauty, he insists, evokes just as clear a response in us as something funny does, the only difference being that it is quieter and shyer to emerge. In his case, it’s a matter of tremors in his chest: a trembling that is as likely to happen when he’s gazing at a quilt stitched by cotton pickers in Alabama as on a painting by Monet or Picasso.

The Crucifixion by Fra Angelico, 1420.
The Crucifixion by Fra Angelico, 1420. Photograph: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

Why did he leave? By his own admission, he could easily have stayed on. It was a combination of things. His grief had eased. His mind was increasingly drawn to life outside the building. His body had begun to be restless. But even after the decision was made, he knew he had been “spoiled for office life”. It was only once he had scored a part-time job as a Manhattan walking-tour guide that he finally handed in his notice.

Was it a wrench? “Yes. There was something so perfect for me about that job. It was like this big shell around me. But I found that I wanted something that was not so perfect – and writing a book is certainly that.” In any case, it is all still there, waiting for him. He can visit any time he likes. And nothing really changes. As he observes in his book, when the Met looks different, it is often the beholder who has been transformed in some way, not the museum itself. In the decade he spent on its staff, several wings were renovated, and hundreds of new objects were acquired. Mostly, though, all that happened was that artworks from 50 centuries just got 10 years older.

So is the Fra Angelico still a favourite? Or has it been superseded in his memory by some other treasure? He thinks for a minute. He’s reluctant to sound like someone who collects baseball cards, or something. 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 base of the cross,” he tells me, his voice rising as he speaks. “They’re John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, and they’re bringing comfort to Mary, who has crumbled to the ground.” He recognises this moment. He believes it speaks down the centuries to people of all faiths, and of none. “The artist is homing in on this idea that even when the world seems to stop, it is still churning, and this reminds us all of what we have to do, which is to get to work. To go out, and try to be good people.”