Portrait of an Observer

by Lilia Levine |
I’m in school, doing a degree in Criminal Justice—Abuela says I’ll have good job opportunities and make good money. I want to be an artist. I draw people every day on the train—people in suits on their way to work, tourists with backpacks leaning over to look at subway map, teenage Boricuas in hoops chattering loudly like my cousins, couples breaking up and couples falling in love.

When I found out I didn’t get that scholarship, Abuela told me I’d have to go work at the restaurant. I went the next day to the first place I could think of; I showed up at the Met with my drawings, and asked for a job. “Training begins at 9AM sharp!” the man said, after a long pause. That was almost 2 years ago. It was the luckiest day of my life.

I work during the day shift during the week, usually right past the entrance to the Egyptian wing, and there are lots of kids. Each age group is different and yet predictable; the kindergarteners, chaperoned by terrified young teachers, swing their arms around and flop on the floor, making me cringe with nervousness. The 4th graders, exploring their independence, are always wandering away from the group. Teenage boys are busier looking over at the girls in the class than at their teacher, let alone any of the artwork. My favorite are the kids on a field trip from out of town; they’re bright eyed and awe-struck, like they’re in a silent foreign city.

I have to act like I don’t notice, like I’m not terrified they’ll accidentally knock something over or get separated from the group. It’s not my job to interfere. I can feel the stress of the teachers, too. I like to think of myself as their backup, like we have some unspoken pact; I’ve got their backs if things start to get out of hand.

I’ve seen it happen so many times, it’s almost like watching a play. And even though the play is overdone, it’s always exciting and inspiring. It typically goes like this: a kid gets interested in a piece of artwork and falls into a trance, failing to notice as the rest of the class drifts away. The mild panic that strikes as the spell is broken and they look around for their group is always a little entertaining, but, as someone who stares at the same work every day, I find it interesting to watch fresh eyes take in something that I’m so familiar with. For me, these sculptures and artifacts have become like the furniture in my living room; I see them so often that they simply blend into the scenery. Every time I see a student have a moment like that, I am snapped back into reality: I work in the greatest museum in the world, surrounded by unique and precious pieces of history.

I’m sorry, I have to go… Someone just put their toddler on the Sphinx for a photo.

The security guard, like other “peripheral” figures in the Museum such as the janitor and coat clerk, is an anonymous, often silent observer. Their invisibility affords them a sensitivity and insight often unrecognized by traditional museum patrons.

Can we broaden our idea of those capable of appreciating fine art? Can we reconsider that those who work in the museum may choose to work there, rather than do so out of a matter of necessity? Can we look to those on the periphery to remind us of the subtleties, the novelties, and the idiosyncrasies of the Museum experience?

How can we blur the line between the observer and the observed in the context of the Museum? How can observing the visitors help us look at art and the human experience with fresh eyes? Does this introduce new ideas about what the observed art is; that is to say—can the “art” be people?


Lilia Levine is an MFA candidate at Pratt Institute with a background in Religious Art History. Her writing predominantly focuses on the notions of authenticity and familiarity in the built environment. Originally from Massachusetts, she currently lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Scout.