During a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robyn Schiff pointed to the mezzanine in the grand entrance. The balcony hovers right over the information desk where Ms. Schiff, a noted poet and English professor, worked from 1995 to 2000, greeting and directing museum visitors. “My boss would stand up there and look down to make sure we were smiling,” Ms. Schiff said.
On Tuesday, Ms. Schiff published her fourth book of poetry, “Information Desk: An Epic,” about her five years at the museum, off and on. It’s a searing yet reverent book-length poem, containing as many jokes as it does social critiques, odes to forgeries and furious passages about goatish colleagues.
Ms. Schiff’s work has often referred to her time at the museum, starting in 2002 with her first book, “Worth,” and its passages about Cartier and the Tiffany Studios, which had exhibitions at the museum during her time there, in 1997 and 1998. Her last book, “A Woman of Property,” includes the poem “Lion Felling a Bull,” about a marble fragment from the Met. More recently, the poet wanted to turn her attention to grand institutional power. Where better than the Met?
For Ms. Schiff, who grew up in New Jersey, the Met “has always been my sacred place.” After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 1995, she moved to New York City with ambitions to write and work in publishing. She started temping, and in between each gig she would spend her days at the museum. One day, she saw an advertisement that the Met was hiring guards. She applied, interviewed and didn’t get the job. But her interviewer gave her a binder of other open positions, and soon she started at the information desk.
Intermittently for half a decade, Ms. Schiff mostly answered one question. As she writes in “Information Desk,” the “catechism/commences: Where’s the bathroom?/Where’s/the bathroom? Can you direct me to a/men’s room?” She would trace the week’s passing by the decay of lilies placed in the vase in the center of the octagonal desk each Monday. She learned the particularities of the Met’s policies and tried to convey them to thousands of visitors. She writes about the “beautiful bike messengers/who resented us/for being the slowest reception desk/in New York City. They didn’t even flirt with us/so impatient were they with our/procedure.” And, in between, Ms. Schiff forged intense, powerful connections to art.
“One of the people who interviewed me told me that for the rest of my life I’d have a relationship with this building and the objects in it, and that coming into this space every day would be transformative,” Ms. Schiff recalled. “And it was true.”
After she left the Met for graduate school, she returned during summers, when the museum always needed more staff. Upon her graduation from an M.F.A. program, she returned again. Since then, Ms. Schiff has taught at Emory, and in the fall she will start as an English professor at the University of Chicago. Still, she can’t seem to shake the idea she belongs behind that marble help desk in the Great Hall. “Even after I left for the last time, and never came back,” she said, “I thought, I always will be back to the Met.”
Walking through the museum on Aug. 3, she said that she had paid a visit every day on her New York trip so far (three consecutive days, at that point). Each time she visits, Ms. Schiff tries to lounge on a blue couch in Gallery 958, whose red velvet damask walls are laden with El Grecos. She used to go there on breaks and take off her name tag so she wouldn’t have to answer questions from visitors.
During her time at the desk, Ms. Schiff was called upon to provide impossible information. People wanted to know how to get to the so-called Elgin Marbles, which had been in London for nearly two centuries by then. People came in requesting to see the dinosaurs; those were right across the park, Ms. Schiff answered, pointing them to the American Museum of Natural History. She was asked to provide bus routes. “At the time, the information desk was almost a spokesperson of New York City, with the kinds of questions that people asked,” she said.
She once corrected Gene Wilder, who tried to argue that the Met was open late that night. He said he had even called to check. “I said to him, ‘You called MoMA,’” Ms. Schiff said. Susan Sontag once sauntered in, and it turned out she was friends with someone else who worked at the desk. In her poem, Ms. Schiff has a long, haunted passage about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s visit to the museum in 1995 or 1996. He asked for the time: “I had to tell him, ‘Not much left/now’; we were/closing soon.”
Ms. Schiff said of the Met, “Everything here is loaded — there’s nothing I don’t like, but it’s all loaded.” Standing near the Temple of Dendur, an ancient Roman Empire project in Egypt, she pointed out her favorite graffiti in the museum: “Leonardo 1820.” “To me, any sense of eternity is undermined by that, but in a really wonderful way,” she said. “You look at the temple and you feel like this has been there forever, but before it came to New York it was sinking.”
Ms. Schiff also wanted to visit the Temple of Dendur, housed in what was once called the Sackler Wing, to recall the 2018 protests, led by Nan Goldin, against members of the Sackler family and their family company’s production of the widely prescribed (and widely abused) painkiller OxyContin. “It’s really important history of this building now,” Ms. Schiff said. “Things change once they’re in this building. A protest becomes not just a protest; it becomes an exhibition about protest.”
Ms. Schiff also brought up an infamous action by the Art Workers’ Coalition, a Vietnam War-era collective, in which the group released cockroaches at a fancy dinner to protest the show “Harlem on My Mind,” which did not include any work by Black artists. (Insects and their life alongside humans and our art make up a vivid B-plot of “Information Desk.”) When Ms. Schiff went on a tour of the conservation department early in her training, she was fascinated by the way objects entering the museum were immediately quarantined in big bags to kill any bugs that might have been trying to sneak in. “They needed to make sure that there is no life in the art,” she said.
In “Information Desk,” Ms. Schiff illustrates how the position of gatekeeper is as much about letting things in as keeping them out. She remembers instructions to carefully avoid signing for certain packages. As she writes in the book, if someone left a painting by the desk, and she signed for it, it “could be claimed as belonging to the/Metropolitan/Museum of Art! imagine that!”