Art is both a shared experience and a personal experience. The artist creates with the intention of communicating something to the viewer, but the viewer also brings their own perceptions to how they interact with the artist’s work. Patrick Bringley worked for a decade as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, spending days, weeks, and months watching the exhibits and observing the exhibits’ effects on the museum’s visitors. His memoir All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum and Me is a gracious, thoughtful meditation on that time.
The “and Me” part of the subtitle indicates that this book is not just about the Met as an institution but also about how Bringley’s life intertwined with, and was shaped by, his time there. Bringley grew up in Chicago, where his mother, who studied art history in college, took her children on regular trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. After his college graduation, Bringley was hired in the editorial events office at The New Yorker magazine. Rather than being the exciting job he anticipated, it devolved into “mostly playing a kind of computer game: in-box, out-box, sent.” Then his beloved older brother Tom, who had also moved to New York to study for a doctorate in biomathematics, became ill with cancer and passed away at the age of 26; his funeral took place on the day Bringley and his fiancée had planned to hold their wedding.
A few months after Tom’s funeral, Bringley and his mother visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their grief and solace evoked by the art they encountered there put an idea in Bringley’s mind: “Could there really be this loophole by which I could drop out of the forward-marching world and spend all day tarrying in this entirely beautiful one?” He returned to New York, quit The New Yorker, and was hired at the Met in the fall of 2008.
Bringley’s account of his ten years at the Met vividly blends the mundane details of the guard’s job (wooden floors are easier to stand on for an eight-hour shift than marble floors; the “occasional asshole remind[s] you, in so many words, that you’re just a security guard”) with transcendent and transformative moments. Bringley gradually discovers his co-workers’ diverse backgrounds and experiences – “secret selves barely hidden under dark blue suits” – and settles into the rhythms and routines of working in an institution that attracts millions of visitors every year.
Rookie guards at the Met have little choice in where they are assigned, so Bringley’s initial postings rotate him through several different parts of the museum. He beautifully conveys his encounters with different artistic eras and styles. In the “eternal standstill” of the Egyptian wing, he muses on the repetitive labour depicted by tiny clay figures and the full-size grandeur of the Temple of Dendur. He is awestruck by the centuries-old brushstrokes and “aching beauty” of Chinese scroll paintings and marvels at the “million dappled reflections” of a Monet landscape. As he becomes more experienced, he spends longer stints in sections such as the Islamic galleries and the American Wing. He gets to know more not only about his fellow guards, but also about the art that keeps him company during his shifts.
In portraying the world of the Met, Bringley largely avoids the more contentious debates around contemporary museum practice. On the question of repatriating acquisitions, he says that while he has no “particular expertise” on the issue, “none of [the Met guards] wish to feel like prison guards, holding on to objects that have a strong case for release.” He only makes brief references to some of the higher-level turbulence in the Met’s operations during his time there, such as the failed attempt at expansion with the Met Breuer branch museum. But this makes sense. The Met guards’ world is not the world of high-level policy- and decision-making but the day-to-day world of being with the art and the visitors.
As Bringley’s tenure at the Met continues, he and his wife have two children. He observes that his work life and home life resemble each other “as much as a mosh pit does a monastery”. As his children grow, and as he watches parents and children interact with each other in the galleries, he gradually realizes that “I would like to learn to become tougher and braver as I engage with more aspects of the world outside.”
His last act on his last day at the Met is to do what his mother always encouraged him and his siblings to do on their visits to the Art Institute of Chicago: choose the picture they liked the best. After ten years at the Met, he has many favourites but settles on a depiction of the Crucifixion by Fra Angelico. It evokes the loss of his brother for him, but also, the depiction of those comforting Christ’s mother at the base of the cross gives him “an example to follow”.
All the Beauty in the World is tremendously emotional and beautifully written. Bringley never strikes an off note in the adept balancing of his story with his musings on the art he spent so much time with. And it would be unfair not to mention the incredibly skillful illustrations by Maya McMahon that perfectly complement the text. All the Beauty in the World is a description of a time in one man’s life, but it is also a moving testament to the universality and timelessness of great art.