Museum guards are an integral but relatively unknown cog in the life of an institution. In a revealing account from his hours spent surveying visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Patrick Bringley outlines in his memoir what happens daily across the galleries and corridors of one of the world’s pre-eminent museums. Wearing out nine pairs of shoes in the process, Bringley ponders on paintings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh, and offers up his opinion on topics such as restitution. Here he describes the hazards of supervising a blockbuster Pablo Picasso exhibition—and the moment a masterpiece by the late Spanish master almost came to a sticky end.
Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in 2010] is the first blockbuster exhibition I work, and it is one for the record books, attracting more than 10,000 visitors some days. Beginning with a teenaged self-portrait dated 1910, the exhibition concludes a dozen galleries later with selections from a series of 347 etchings that the 87-year-old artist completed in just 270 days. Who knew that the Met owns several hundred Picassos—paintings, ceramics, sculptures, drawings and prints—only a tiny fraction of which it displays at any one time? Until now.
Most of my colleagues dislike working “the show”, as we call special exhibitions. “Too much of a circus,” one of them grumbles. To work the show is to manage an endless herd of jostlers and murmurers, a nightmare scenario for the guards of the usually stately Section B. I’m an exception. I find something magical in it—the energy in the room, the often exceeded or confounded expectations, people shout-whispering “the Blue Period!”—and I tell the section chief to post me inside the show as often as he likes.
Now, if you can imagine a gallery packed with people jockeying for position to see Picasso paintings, you can also imagine the narrow moat-like channel that is supposed to separate the art from its audience. On the far side of the gallery, I spot a gentleman blithely encroaching on the channel, but although I gain his attention with a wave, he doesn’t know how to interpret me pantomiming a healthy step backward. So he elects to come speak to me—which, fine—except the shortest route is through the very channel I’m trying to keep him out of. Obliviously, he strides toward me and immediately throws his shoulder into the frame surrounding Woman in White.
The painting swings once, twice, three times on copper wires anchored just below the ceiling. When at last the terrible pendulum comes to rest, I feel as though I have witnessed an earthquake, like reality itself was briefly unmoored. Somebody cries “Holy shit!” Instinctively, the crowd shrinks away from the man, who has his hands up, I suppose, to see if I’ll arrest him. I call the section chief and, ultimately, I am assured that the painting is unscathed and was never in any real danger. But I don’t know. It’s hard to feel that all is well when you’ve just seen a swinging Picasso.
• All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me, Patrick Bringley, Simon & Schuster, 240pp, $27.99 (hb)