Museum Hack and 5 Reasons DC’s National Gallery of Art is the ‘Best Museum in the Entire Country’

Assassinations, forgeries, illicit affairs–of both the straight and not-straight variety—Disney’s “Little Mermaid conspiracy theories and shark attacks. If any of these things interest you (and, let’s be honest: ALL of these should absolutely interest you), then you need to go on a Museum Hack “Un-Highlights” tour of the National Gallery of Art the next time you’re in D.C.

Museum Hack
Museum Hack’s motto

Museum Hack is a company that host hundreds of tours at museums in cities across the U.S., including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But, as the name suggests, this company is out to hack the usual generic museum tour and make you fall in love with museums. The best part is that they do it in the sneakiest way: By employing a fun, irreverent, renegade group of museum lovers/tour guides to tell you all the juiciest stories behind those staid, stagnant pieces of art work.

Hannah was my excellent and entertaining guide during my two-hour tour of the National Gallery of Art, which she definitively declared (on more than one occasion) as the best museum in the entire country.

Museum Hack Hannah
Museum Hack Hannah

By the end, I think she had me and my fellow newly-initiated art lovers (Chris, Michele and teenager Ben–all from California) completely convinced and ready to argue the fact with anyone who disagreed.

Here are 5 of Hannah’s most compelling reasons.

1) Because it was built on the site of a presidential assassination

And surprisingly, not too many museums can say that! The National Gallery of Art occupies the former location of the Baltimore & Potomac Railway train station. It was here, in July 1881 that President James Garfield—seeking to escaping D.C.’s oppressive summer heat with a little lobster-roll-filled vacay in New England–was shot by an assassin on the station platform. The nation’s 20th president then lingered for 11 weeks before finally dying in a most gruesome and puss-filled fashion. Then some other stuff happened and the National Gallery of Art was built and opened in 1941.

2) “Museum sugar daddy” aka Andrew Mellon aka Hannah’s main man.

Listen, we wouldn’t even have a museum to hack if it wasn’t for ol’Mr. Mellon. Man, it is good to be rich. And if you’re going to be rich, you’ve got to find a way to spend that cash, preferably in a manner that will give you some major street cred, or a lasting legacy of beneficence. Mellon was, of course, a well-travelled man, and when he saw London’s National Gallery and realized that America didn’t really have anything equivalent to a national art collection in the United States, he said, “Let’s do this.”

3) The National Gallery holds the only painting by Leonardo Da Vinci on public view in the Americas.

Just let that sink in for a minute, because I had to when I heard it.

Da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci

What is widely considered the finest example of a Da Vinci painting—the double-sided “Ginevra de’Benci” —was acquired by the National Gallery after a protracted MMA-style museum-fight throw down with a ton of other museums, most notably, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the odd and protracted negotiations with the Princely House of Lichtenstein, the Alisa Mellon Bruce Foundation (yes, those art-loving Mellons came to the rescue again), paid $5 million—a record in 1967—to bring Da Vinci’s first portrait and first work done exclusively in oil to D.C. Interesting side note: the $5 million supposedly went to pay off the gambling debts of the Prince of Lichtenstein. And the Met was left without a Da Vinci, which then led them to say all kinds of mean things about the painting in the New York Times. Talk about sore losers.

4) An amazing collection of Impressionist and French art (including a fake Van Gogh)

American banker and patron of the arts Chester Dale liked to play games. His primary source of fun was to lend out pieces of his amazing collection of French paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which he referred to as his “children”) to various museums throughout the country and then recall them at a moment’s notice when he missed them. No one dared say no because they were all hoping for the big prize—an endowment of his collection when he passed on to the great bank in the sky.

The National Gallery won, becoming the recipient of over 240 paintings, including a fake Van Gogh self-portrait that Dale apparently knew was a fake, but kept on the DL, saying, “As long as I’m alive, it’s a Van Gogh.”

Fake Van Gogh
Fake Van Gogh

5) It holds the largest collection of Edgar Degas sculptures in the world (again, thanks Mellons!)

This time it was Paul Mellon who had the good sense to snap up most of the collection when it became available at a New York exhibit in 1955 for the insanely low price of $400,000. The National Gallery owns 52 of the surviving 69 sculptures Degas created in his lifetime, including the original “Little Dancer” sculpture. You’ll see bronze copies of the “Little Dancer” at museums around the world, but the National Gallery has the original beeswax and found objects sculpture which features real human hair and tulle.

Little Dancer at the National Gallery of Art

So that’s 5 reasons, but honestly, Hannah gave us a ton more. For example, we got to participate in a tableaux vivant, which is a live recreation of a work of art. Ours involved a painting of London Mayor Sir Brook Watson, who lost a leg in a shark attack and then convinced artist John Singleton Copley to paint a recreation of the whole shark fight/rescue. I don’t know what the tableaux vivants at the other Museum Hack tours involve, but ours has to rank up there as pretty badass.

Museum Hack tableaux vivant
Our Copley reenactment. I’m using my purse as shark jaws (I was the shark, in case that isn’t clear).

And I didn’t even get to the story about the lesbian Queen of Sweden who abdicated her Lutheran throne to become Catholic, thereby earning her apartments at the Vatican where she proceeded to hang the portrait of her former “bedfellow” Countess Ebba Sparre in her room at the Vatican. Tsk, tsk, you naughty minx.

Or the painting of Guiliano de’Medici who was killed during Easter mass in the Florence Cathedral in front of about 10,000 worshippers, which is recreated in the “Assassin’s Creed” video game.

Or the Van Dyck painting of Queen Henrietta and her dwarf, the very interesting and resilient Sir Jeffrey Hudson.

Or the super swaggish, Beyonce-posing Andries Stilte (and his modern day contemporaries brought to us by Kehinde Wiley).

National Gallery of Art
Making it rain (sort of) in the National Gallery’s Stuart room.

We also played games like “Find Ginevra a New Man” and “Match the Emoji to the Painting” and “Pose Like a French Statue.” Those are not official game titles, but you get the idea. Plus there was some elicit chocolate sneaking, and pictures and prizes at the end.

Seriously, I don’t know if I’ll ever look at a museum tour the same way again.

Museum Hack provided me with this tour free of charge. The opinions expressed here are my own, because, if you know me, you know I freely give my opinions. 

 

 

 

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Pompeii’s Erotica: If It’s in a Museum, It Must Be Art

So, apparently, Pompeii is old Italian for “penis.”

Pompeii penis
This one is carved into the cobblestone.

Yeah, I know, right? Nobody saw that coming.

But they are everywhere at the ancient Roman town-city near Naples.

Pompeii has long been on my travel bucket list. Why yes, I am aware that my travel bucket list is incredibly lame. It also includes visiting 221B Baker Street and that Japanese island inhabited by cats. (If you click on that link, be prepared to squee. That second picture slays me.)

Vesuvius looming over Pompeii.
Vesuvius looming over Pompeii.

Pompeii has always fascinated me. The fact that there was the very affluent and sophisticated city completely frozen in time has always had a hold on me. I also found it hauntingly ironic that the city motto was something along the lines of: “enjoy life while you can for tomorrow is uncertain.” Especially when you live in the shadow of an active volcano.

So I was quite geeked out when my tour companion for life, XFE agreed to take me to Pompeii, even though he’d been there on a previous trip. I was so excited to go to a place I had read about in awe as a nerdy, history-loving pre-teen.

But after visiting, I’m now worried that the adults in my life probably thought I was a pervert looking at dick pics in her bedroom all that time, and not a nerdy, history-loving pre-teen.

Squint. There's a penis there.
Squint. There’s a penis there.

Somehow, in all my reading about Pompeii, I had missed out on the fact that the place was basically some sort of “50 Shades of Pompeii” sexual playground. AncientDigger.com explains:

Sex was a completely normal and fulfilling experiencing in Pompeii, and most of what we know about the eroticism that took place there was left on the walls….Some of the most recognizable and erotic art and archaeological finds in Pompeii were statues, large pools, and several murals of Priapus.

It is important to remember that all of the artwork in Pompeii discovered thus far has a much deeper meaning for the people that lived there. The Pompeians were enamored with eros and this obsession drove them to experiment with love, take risks with questionably clean prostitutes, and often drove men to partake in lewd acts with anything with a pulse. Is this the reason for the amount of sex that took place at Pompeii? Possibly.

….

Pre-Socratic philosophers believed Eros was a natural force responsible for creation. It was not just good or bad, but destructive. Eros was vital because it operated as a social concept, yet it had moral implications. It was hard to control because in many cases, individuals would become slaves to it. This may have been the case in Pompeii.

Oh dear.

Well, just know: Penises are everywhere at Pompeii.

Pompeii bordello art.
Pompeii bordello art.

They’re engraved on the streets.

They’re on the walls.

Pompeii bordello art

And, they’re in Naples’ exceedingly excellent National Archaeological Museum.

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In fact, they have a whole “Secret Room” devoted to erotica from Pompeii.

Not-so-secret room at the National Archaeological Museum
Not-so-secret room at the National Archaeological Museum

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I guess it’s like San Diego, which allegedly is German for a lady whale’s lady parts (thanks, Katie, for the reminder and insistence that I find this gif).

Petunia’s Future as a Flying Feline

Sometimes, I’m given to bouts of melancholy. The blues, if you will. Pity party, table for one.

This is particularly true when I think about life without my sweet Princess Petunia Potpie. I know cats don’t last forever. Particularly overweight, lazy cats like my little Toons. And when I think about it, I get quite sad and teary eyed.

Then, I read stuff like this: “Cats away! Artist turns his dead pet into flying helicopter after it is killed by a car.” And well, I’m filled with hope. There are alternatives to losing your best friend forever.

Apparently, Dutch artist Bart Jansen turned his deceased pet into a work of art. He had him stuffed (taxidermied?) and then teamed up with a radio control air craft expert to turn the dead cat into a helicopter.

At first I thought, how stupid. The cat was killed by a car, so why not turn him into a car? That would be truly ironic justice.

But then, I saw the dead kitty’s name: Orville. He was named after famous aviator Orville Wright. So of course the cat was meant to fly. As the Orvillecopter.

All I can say is that Orville was a lot sleeker than Petunia. I don’t think four propellers would work for my little tons-o-fun. The Petuniacopter would need a jet engine to get off the ground. She’d be more like a Petunia-bus. Probably a 787, no less.

Dreaming of being airborne, Toonies?

Jansen also has future plans for his furry flier:

“He added that Orville will soon be ‘flying with the birds’ stating: ‘Oh how he loved birds. He will receive more powerful engines and larger props for his birthday. So this hopping will soon change into steady flight.’”

OK, I love my cat a lot, but we do not give her birthday gifts. I’m not even sure when her birthday is. She was a stray. Her one and only birthday was the damn lucky day when I found her tiny, screeching furball self.

I Googled the Dutch artist, but surprisingly, couldn’t find anything else by him, just story after story about the Orvillecopter. Nothing on a price either.

I predict a run on taxidermists everywhere from people wanting to take their stuffed pets to the next level. As it turns out, there are a lot of websites promising “pet preservation.” The fine folks at Perpetual Pets promise a Loving and Lasting alternative to cremation or taxidermy. Nothing on the website suggests they can make a pet airborne.

I think this cat got caught in a propeller.

Xtreme Taxidermy sounds like it would offer XTREME pet preservation, maybe something along the lines of schnauzers on snowboards, or a Siamese on a skateboard, but while they promise: “Your pet will look very natural and even close up it will be difficult to tell any difference at all except for the lack of movement.” Not good enough. I’m looking for lots of movement. Preferably aloft on wind currents.

The impressively named World Fauna Pets Forever has been featured on National Geographic Explorer, but nothing on motorizing your pet. They do, however, list their prices, which further guarantees Petunia might not get to be immortalized posthumously: Cats (all breeds) Minimum Up to 10 LBS…….$800.00 (plus $10.00 per pound over 10 LBS). At that rate, getting Petunia stuffed would cost about $1,000.

That’s too bad because those pictures of that flying cat really crack me up.

Look at all these dead animals co-existing (er, not really existing per se) peacefully.