Celebrate Museums on Museum Day and Beyond

May 18th is Museum Day and I love museums! They truly are one of my favourite places to spend time. I have worked in them in various capacities, including retail at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and as an educational programmer at the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, but mostly I just love visiting them. I relish the history, beauty and solace that I find when exploring a museum.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about an old exhibit which ran at the AGO during the time that I was working there—it was called Uniform. What made this exhibit special was that its subjects were the Protection Services Officers (aka security guards) who worked in the gallery itself. From September 24, 2003 to January 18, 2004, nineteen of the gallery’s guards were put on display via large scale colour photographs and accompanying text, sound and video installations. I knew many of the guards who participated and through this show they were able to share their life stories and reflections on guarding in the gallery. It was fascinating!  

This exhibit popped into my head again recently because I’ve been reading a new book entitled All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley. Bringley was a security guard at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City for 10 years, and he has written a beautifully intimate account of what that experience was like for him.  

This is not a tell-all book about the behind-the-scenes dramas at the museum. In fact, it is quite the opposite; it is a deeply personal and emotional reflection on one man’s life during the time that he worked at the museum. It begins with an explanation of why he took the job in the first place – his older brother had just died of cancer, and he could no longer stomach his office job in the events department at the New Yorker. He sought out a place of quiet and beauty, a workplace where he thought he would be able to “dwell in silence” and sit with his grief.

What follows is a quiet narrative of his time working in different wings and exhibits at The Met, his reflections on how art and life coincide, and his thoughts about the great gifts of being able to experience a museum. Working eight to 12-hour shifts, he had plenty of time to observe both the art (at one point he counted all of the figures in the paintings of the Old Masters Wing and came up with over 8000!) and to observe people. Whether it be native New Yorkers or out of town tourists, he got to be a fly on the wall to those visitors who barely noticed him as well as an introductory force to art for those who were brave enough to engage him in conversation.  

The Met’s main building on 5th Avenue is four city blocks long and houses a collection of art and objects reflecting over 5000 years of world history, and his text certainly explores that aspect of the museum.   He also gives equal weight to the people who he worked with – the other 500 plus security guards. We learn fun details about them, such as: the guards published their own literary magazine and also held staff art exhibits. With over 2000 employees in total, the Met is like a small town and the security guards a neighbourhood in it.

One of Bringley’s favourite things to do while working at The Met was to tell visitors that they were indeed looking at real, original objects. There is nothing like seeing art and artifacts in person!

WPL offers the opportunity to visit several local museums for free. With your WPL card, you can borrow family passes for both the Region of Waterloo Museums and THEMUSEUM in Kitchener. Why not spark your imagination and have your own Museum Day? Bringley would approve!