I’m currently reading a book called All the Beauty in the World, by Patrick Bringley. The book is a memoir of Bringley’s tenure as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a job he took in the wake of his older brother’s death from cancer.
Not visiting the Met is the one regret I have from our trip to NYC in 2015, and a high priority next time we go. Maybe regret is too strong a word, as we weren’t in NYC long enough to do everything we’d have wanted to do. We were only there for four days, after all–and four days in NYC isn’t even a “scratch the surface” length of time.
I checked this book out last time I was was at the library, one of those “This looks interesting” pickups that your library makes so wonderfully possible. So far–I’m about a third of the way through it–the book is quite good, but I just read a passage that I loved so much that I’m going to quote it here. This passage is literally the last thing I read in the book. Here Bringley is describing the fruits of all his people-watching while on the job.
There is no one way that visitors experience the museum, but there are a few typical ways. Like anything else, people watching is something one can get better at; and once I commit myself to mastering the art of it, so to speak, I learn to pick out exemplary characters among the thousands I see every day. There is the Sightseer–a father in his local high school’s windbreaker, camera around his neck, on the hunt for whatever’s mot famous. He has no special interest in art, but it doesn’t mean that he’s blind to what he sees. In fact, he loudly says, “I mean, the frames alone!” several times while admiring the workmanship in the old master wing. He listens carefully as his school-age children relate what they’re learning in Global History. But he surprised and disappointed to learn that the Met–which he conceives as a kind of Art Hall of Fame–doesn’t have nay Leonardo da Vincis. Nevertheless, he leaves the museum enthused.
There is the Dinosaur Hunter–a mother with small children who cranes her neck to peer around corners, panicked by each new piece of evidence that this museum only has art. It is a first visit to New York, a big deal for her and her family; they’re staying in Times Square. And she just sort of assumed that a famous museum would have a T. rex or an interactive laser display or something to entertain the kids. But she resolves to make the most of it, and a guard pulls her aside to recommend the mummies and the knights in shining armor. She gets a kick out of this guard, who says goofy stuff to her kids, and she walks away ready to report that New Yorkers are very nice.
There are three distinct types of Lovers. The first is the Art Lover–a quiet, intent-looking person who’s traveled from another city to see an exhibition that got a great write-up in The New Yorker. Her face doesn’t move much but her mind is furiously churning as she inches through the galleries like a tortoise among hares. Then there is the Lover of the Met itself, a local who’s known it as a secular church for as long as he can remember. In his youth, he paid a few dollars each visit; now he can spring for the basic, no-frills membership. Though his job has nothing to do with big ideas or beautiful things, he lives in this city because here they feel at his fingertips. Finally there are the Lovebirds, who flutter through the galleries, alighting in spaces where silences aren’t awkward and strong emotions feel natural.
There are several different kinds of visitors who can’t keep their mitts off statues, sarcophagi, antique chairs, and anything with drawers. For the most part, people are good about not touching paintings, but anything else, forget it. If you dusted the Met for prints, you’d have countless suspects. Some can’t help themselves: the cold, cold marble calls to them and before they know it, they’ve caressed. Others lock on to their targets with premeditation, a certain too purposeful quality in their gait allowing me to detect their motive and jump in between. Finally, there are visitors who simply don’t know the rules, who haven’t thought through the various questions about old and fragile art that all lead to one answer: “Don’t touch.” When I stop a middle school kid from climbing into the lap of an ancient Venus one day, he apologizes and looks around thoughtfully. “So all of this broken stuff,” he says, surveying a battlefield of headless and noseless and limbless ancient statuary, “did it all break in here?”
There are also singular individuals who catch my eye. An old man bends horizontally down on his walker, exhausted by the effort of looking, and his wife bends her head to whisper in his ear. For several long minutes she minutely describes the medieval reliquaries that, for want of energy, he will have to miss. Finished, she helps to right him, and they inch along their way.
A mother at the American Wing fountain hands her child two coins: “One wish for yourself,” she says, “and another, just as big, for someone else.” I have never heard this before and immediately know I will say it to my children one day.
Two elderly, white-haired ladies are dressed exactly alike. On closer inspection, they are identical twins. On even closer inspection, there is one difference between them: a string bow tie worn by one but not the other.
Sometimes I will be watching such a person for a minute or more when an uncanny thing happens. All of a sudden, the visitor will turn on their heel, walk in my direction, and ask me a question.
What’s the question? I don’t know. That’s where I stopped reading.