Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Angela Jennings |

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 in New York, NY. It’s the largest art museum in the United States with the permanent collection containing more than two million works from around the world. Throughout the Met’s 144 years of existence it’s been the museum guard who’s been entrusted with the extensive responsibility of sustaining safety for the people, galleries and the art. Guards experience the complex duality of being placed on the bottom of the wage and social spectrum, while given the fundamental authority as “guardians.”

The guards’ position at The Met requires one to be quietly aware at all times, demanding continued physical and mental strength. A few of the duties include reporting to one’s assigned section and post, standing, surveying, directing and informing visitors and staff, communicating with the dispatch office, and memorizing the museum’s layout, specific artworks, events and shows. Despite the numerous appointed tasks, the job functions largely in states of monotony.

Pages 5-6 from the Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Zine, Marble statue of the so-called Apollo Lykeios and found paper, 2014

Pages 5-6 from the Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Zine, Marble statue of the so-called Apollo Lykeios and found paper, 2014

In most cases guards spend the majority of the day standing on their feet, in their own minds without interruption; a type of cerebral numbing zone. Many counteract this zone through sketching or writing on small pads of paper, completing crossword puzzles, and even learning new languages through the use of small flashcards hidden in their hands. There are also those who seek to memorize every art piece and detail found within specific galleries.

Some guards speed up the presence of time by activating the rule of “no backpacks on backs” as a strict mission, keeping their eyes and bodies alert and approach every visitor breaking the rule. Yet, there are others that let this rule slide and tend to focus their eyes on the figures and faces of the visitors, and either discuss their thoughts with team members or keep their views to themselves. And there are those who pass the time keeping their spirits high by singing songs within.

Throughout my duration of working as a security guard at the Met, I too attempted the majority of these strategies. Yet, most days the numbing zone took full effect. It was during this time that I started to observe not only the people and art, but the small lost remnants of being left behind on the gallery floors. While on duty I began to take on the role of an archaeologist, this duty gave me more to contemplate.

Centerfold from the Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Zine Sleeping Eros and found pill, 2014

Centerfold from the Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Zine Sleeping Eros and found pill, 2014

Towards the end of my first month on the job I saw the first relic; it was located on the floor in the middle of gallery 169 – Art of the Later Roman Empire: Third Century A.D. The Met describes this gallery as demonstrating changes in social and artistic trends that emerged during the later imperial period. Displayed in the gallery are marble sarcophagi, which replaced traditions of cremation and attest to a shift in culture. As I picked the relic off of the floor its form became apparent, it spoke to that of the human figure. The relic was composed of two main features including a red round bead and an elongated jade-like bead, attached together with yellow string suggested the form of a head and torso. In this moment of finding a continuum of embodiment arose, encompassing the absent bodies that once rested in their sarcophagi, the figurative jewel, its previous owner, the visitors and myself. For the next 5 months I continued to search and scan the museum floors and collect relics, which I now sincerely think of as treasures.

I collected over 100 treasures from the museum, most of which are just a few centimeters wide including sequins, washers, beads, dust, earrings, buttons, and objects that are too abstract to be given names other than what seems to be their material makeup. I developed a cataloging system to preserve the order and safety of the objects by placing them into plastic bags that were then labeled according to the week from which the treasures were found.

Currently I’m in the process of developing a photo book entitled Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The treasures will be photographed digitally referencing the photographic strategies applied by the Met. Each object will receive its own page and will be ordered by implementing the cataloging system I developed based on chronology. Some of the treasures have also been digitized allowing for the possibility of printing replicas from bioplastic using a 3D printer.

Through these gestures I intend to preserve and present the treasures in the most pristine way. These small artifacts of human existence found within The Met attest to the histories formed between life, art and the institution. The collection illuminates sets of constructed hierarchical functions within the museum, including the social standing and significance given to security guards along with the material relationships found between the treasures and The Met’s permanent collection.

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20Angela Jennings is an artist who investigates hierarchical systems of circumstance often employing strategies of subversion through satire. Jennings received her BS in Art Education from South Dakota State University along with a Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Studio Art from Brandeis University. Jennings has attended La Pocha Nostra Summer School, The Abramovic Method Workshop, and is a former student of Performance Art 101 with Kembra Pfahler. Recent exhibitions include: Highways Performance Space, Los Angeles, CA (2015) The Mingei International Museum, San Diego, CA (2015) Perform Chinatown, Los Angeles, CA (2015) SPF15, San Diego, CA (2015) New Media Caucus/CAA Conference, New York, NY (2015) Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles, CA (2014) Spinello Projects, Miami Beach, FL (2014) Jennings is currently an MFA Candidate at UC San Diego