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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Friday Links: Old Pets with Norwegian Passports Flying in Restricted Airspaces Edition

Ellen and Portia spoof Kim

Norway's new passport is purty.

DC Earthquake: Color Me Not Impressed

So, we had a little earthquake here in D.C. today.

It’s my first time in an earthquake. And I must say, at the risk of sounding totally blasé, I was a bit disappointed.

It happened at about 2 pm. I was earnestly at work when the whole 100-year-old building I work in started to rumble and shake. They’re renovating the floor above me, so my first thought was, “Oh damn. Somebody just knocked down a wall or something major.” A few picture frames fell over, but it was all over after about 20 seconds.

I also work right across the park from the White House, so the natural, second thought was that there had been an attack, but a quick look out the window confirmed that wasn’t the case.

After a very panicky HR person came through the floor yelling, “Get out, get out, get out!” over the screaming fire siren, we all, of course, evacuated the building and went to the nearest park where we stood around checking our Facebook and Twitter feeds and cracking inappropriate jokes. After 20 minutes, we were allowed back in the building.

I’m sorry but any earthquake where you’re allowed back in the building after 20 minutes isn’t that impressive.

I know, I know, 5.9, felt from the Carolinas to Toronto, all the way west to Ohio, blah, blah, blah.

And yes, the Smithsonian closed all its museums for the remainder of the day, the National Cathedral had some damage to its spire and the rumor on the street is that the Washington Memorial was leaning.

But 20 seconds of shaking? Really? I’m giving that earthquake a 5.9 out of 10.

One of my coworkers lost his economic stabilization piggy bank. That's it. The extent of the damage.

Oh, but don’t worry. While I was standing in the park enjoying the sunshine, other people were losing their shit. Crying on the sidewalks, panicking because their phone wasn’t working (mine was working just fine.)

But if you know DC, you know that people here lose their shit pretty easily. They’re a bunch of scared little rabbits in this city. You should have seen Snowmaggedon 2009. Anarchy. Cars being abandoned on medians type of crap. It was like a zombie wasteland in the days following that snow event.

The biggest annoyance about today’s “earthquake” is that metro was all jacked up. Of course. So the evening commute will (was) undoubtedly be a nightmare. Which means there’s only one thing to do – go to the bar. And order a martini. Shaken, not stirred.

By the way, I actually fell on the sidewalk on the way to the bar. Not because I’m clumsy (which I totally am) but because I may or may not have been feeling some aftershocks. (OK, I wasn’t)

I’m also starting an effort to get a celebrity benefit concert for the recovery effort. And by recovery, I mean my bar tab. Gwyneth Paltrow better bring her “Country Strong” butt out here and help me, I mean, DC. Please leave donation details in the comment section below. Help make DC stronger, people.

Totally Pretentious Food Truck Review: Rolling Ficelle

DC is known for many things: hoards of sweaty red tourists crowding on our metros and sidewalks walking four astride; young, eager and painfully self-important congressional staffers who aren’t very well paid; old, bloated and painfully self-important lobbyists who are overpaid.

For the last couple of years, it’s also been known as a food truck mecca. OK, perhaps I’m over-exaggerating a bit.

Following the lead of much cooler and hipper cities such as Austin and Portland, our very own lil’ol DC has itself a food truck scene. And like summer interns working on the Hill and shopping at Forever 21, DC has thrown itself headlong into the trend.

So like the trendy blogger I am, I’m going to review some of these fine rolling establishments, starting with Rolling Ficelle.

First of all: How the hell do you pronounce Ficelle??? You pronounce it “skinny long baguette-type bread.” But you could just call it, “quite delectable.”

I did not take this picture. Some other food truck expert did.

Today happened to be Truckeroo, a gathering of rolling culinary artists all in one high-brow location, in this case, the Navy Yard. It’s kinda like Bocuse d’Or, but for food trucks. I happen to work in downtown DC, near that Algonquin Rondtable for bike messengers, Farragut Park. So I knew my food truck options would be limited today.

After perusing the Twitter, the name Rolling Ficelle caught my eye. Now, I am a connoisseur of food trucks, yet I was unfamiliar with this Rolling Ficelle. Must be new, I thought. But alas, no! They’ve been around since at least May. And they are really, really proud of this Ficelle bread stuff. It’s made at some Lyon Bakery. Whatevs.

I meandered over to fine Farragut Square at about 12:15 and got in line. It wasn’t especially long, but I know how these things can go. Even a short line can take an excruciating amount of waiting. I settled in, eyeing my fellow alfresco diners and their painful sartorial choices (please, if you must buy Tom shoes to help the poor children, do not wear them. Keep them in your closet or use them as house slippers, for which they are clearly intended.)

The wait was, surprisingly, only about 13 minutes. I say surprisingly, but when you really think about it, they are pre-made sandwiches for heaven’s sake. There were about 7 sandwich options to chose from, all of them named after artists, including Rothko, Calder, etc. There was also a delectable-sounding Frieda Kahlo salad with jicama and watermelon.

I placed my order and handed over my money. The prices were terrific — $8.95 for a DeKooning sandwich (roast beef, provolone, tomato, crushed cherry red pepper relish, draped with a light horseradish aioli), Ms. Vicker’s chips and a sour cherry lemonade that was really refreshing. A bargain for the area, let alone a food truck. I can’t remember the last time I paid less than $10 for lunch and didn’t have to bring it from home. Just a sandwich would have been $6.95.

Since I had paid to little to begin with, I wasn’t expecting much, so when I got a long skinny and hefty sheath of white after about two minutes of waiting, I was very surprised by both the size and the quickness of my repast. I hurried with my bundle back to work, heartily proclaiming my conquest to co-workers I happened to pass along the way.

Dear reader, the sandwich was delightful. A revelation, if you’ll indulge me. The ingredients: fresh and plentiful. The bread: delectable, satisfyingly crunchy on the exterior, heavenly soft on the interior. The roast beef: succulent and satisfying. The aioli: an alluring, ambrosial surprise clinging gently to the delicious bread. The red pepper relish: piquant and the perfect accompaniment. The tomatoes: ruby-red slabs of juiciness.

 

The balance between beef, cheese, veggies, red peppers and aioli was heavenly. The slightly spicy red peppers provided an interesting counterbalance to the smooth lemony garlic-mayo mixture. Neither the meat nor the cheese overpowered the sandwich. This is a gourmet sandwich properly prepared and sold at a reasonable price, I thought to myself with satisfaction.

And they have a credit card machine.

I’m saying I liked it. You should go. It was very yummy. I’m giving it four out of four truck wheels.

 

Food Porn: America Eats Tavern

We are, to put it mildly, kinda hermit-like. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say we’re homebodies. We like to spend our time at home, with each other and Petunia – as sad as that sounds.

Our idea of a rocking good time on a Friday night is grilling some meat, cracking open a nice bottle of red and cleaning off the DVR or working our way through the pile of magazines we subscribe to.

To whit: we’ve lived in adorable Old Town for a year now, and I can count on one hand how many times we’ve walked over to King Street for dinner or even drinks. I honestly can’t remember the last time we went to a movie in a theater. It might have been Transformers II. I don’t know.

What I’m saying is: We’re happy little hermit crabs when we have nowhere to go.

However, last Saturday was an exception. We actually got dressed in nice clothes, left the house, and went to dinner. WITH people! But not just any people—two of our favorite people, Matt and Melissa. They’re pretty much the only folks that can get us out and into the wild city of Washington DC on a Saturday night.

We were all pretty excited because we had 7:30 dinner reservations at Jose Andres’ new pop-up concept restaurant, America Eats Tavern. Here’s a description from the website:

“America Eats offers a new take on American classics and celebrate native ingredients and some long forgotten dishes, from burgoo to oysters Rockefeller. With recipes and stories collected through extensive research, and with help from the National Archives and a culinary advisory council of chefs and scholars, the menu showcases the fascinating history of our nation one plate at a time, whether it’s the origins of New England clam chowder or the introduction of grapefruit to America.”

It’s a cool concept and a well-done space covering multiple floors (I think 3?) and featuring a very cool wood window frame and black and white photo centerpiece-mobile-chandelier installation running up through the staircase. Bad description. Here’s a picture:  

We got to the restaurant a bit early to get some drinks at the bar – and because we were ridiculously excited to be out and mingling with other people. At the bar, I had a Southside, which is gin, mint, and lemon, and let me tell you, it was, to quote Martyn Lawrence Bullard of Million Dollar Decorator’s fame, deeeelishous. And they were served in the most adorable green raised relief glasses. If my purse had been bigger, I would swiped a few.

It was a teensy bit dark in there.

Our table was a bit delayed. OK, more than a bit delayed. And the hostess really got our hopes up when she came over to seat us at the downstairs casual dining section, only to realize that we had reservations at the upstairs portion of the restaurant. Upon realizing her mistake, she had to send us back to the bar to keep waiting. And drinking delicious Southsides.

We were finally seated and raring to order. Because we had waited so long for our table, the hostess immediately sent over a bread basket and an order of hush puppies while we began reviewing the history tome that is the menu. I gotta say, as a history geek, I really liked the details and stories on the menu. And our waitress was very knowledgeable and helpful. However, I found it odd (and in the case of the oysters Rockefeller AND the chicken potpie, very disappointing) that a lot of the listed dishes were only available one or two nights a week.

We ordered a dozen oysters to start and they were great. They came with a couple of different types of infused vinegars, but no other sauces or accompaniments. We then ordered appetizers for the table – specifically the boneless buffalo wings and shrimp remoulade and fried green tomatoes. They were both so, so good, but teeny, teeny tiny. Definitely just one bite a piece. I really wish I hadn’t shared them with anyone.

Need about 10 more of these, please.

Things got a bit complicated from here. Two people ordered the she-crab soup, which we wanted after the appetizers, but the waiters delivering the soup were quite insistent that the soup was also an appetizer and should be served at the same time. We explained that we knew that, but we wanted it separately, perhaps even with the main courses. Mass confusion resulted. Much internal consultation amongst the staff and bewildered glances our way. They tried to deliver the soup to the table again, and were sent away again, hands heavy with soup while we finished our tiny appetizers. In defense of the odd timing, we had oysters as well, but no one tried to serve those at the same time as the appetizers. Weird.

XFE also saw a nearby table being served a dish of abalone, which we were initially told was not available. When we asked about the other table getting one, it was explained that they were friends of the chef and were doing a special tasting menu. But our waitress, who again, was very sweet, went back and brought one to our table, no charge, which I thought was more than a little nice. And, it was excellent. It was delicious and chewy and served with a pepper and smoke foam.

Our mains soon arrived. I had the lobster Newberg which was pretty much great. The sauce was to die for. Again, that sherry! Gotta love it.

Best thing of the night.

 M&M split the shrimp and pork jambalaya for two. The presentation was adorable – it was served out of a little cast iron pot. I had a few bites, but wasn’t too impressed with the flavors, in part because they put the trinity of celery, onion and bell pepper on the side (served cold), which to me, is just sacrilege. How you gonna make a roux without the trinity?? (In my best Cajun accent) Plus, there was no kick in it. Although the sausage was very good. XFE had a good-looking Cobb salad and a few bites of everybody elses’ mains.

We decided to split a couple of deserts—the real disappointment of the evening. We ordered a pineapple upside down cake (it was bad– very dry, the opposite of what a pineapple upside down cake should be) and a head-scratching New York cheesecake.

We had played with the idea of the key lime pie (deconstructed), but since I hate citrusy desserts, we abandoned that option. We were told that the New York cheesecake was very different than a regular cheesecake and we should expect a light fluffy filling with a hint of lemon, not the dense fillings we’re used to. Fine, I can deal with a hint of lemon, and I generally love cheesecake.

Well, the filling we got tasted suspiciously like key lime mousse. Not “hint of lemon,”—but straight up lime. As a citrus dessert hater, I know the difference and I can taste/distinguish the two a mile away. And comparing it to another table’s key lime pie, it was hard to see any physical difference between the two whipped fillings.

When we pointed it out to the waitress, she said that she had warned us it was different than what we’re used to. That was it. No offer to take it back to the kitchen and question it, or taste it, even.

We all suspect that the filling foam cans got mixed up and we did not at all have a cheesecake filling. As someone who hates key lime pie, I’m pretty certain that’s exactly what we got.

So all and all it was a good meal, foodwise, except the desserts, and some of the appetizer portion sizes. The service was pretty hit or miss, some really excellent moments (mmm, abalone), and some weird ones (complete dessert misfire). We won’t be making another trip to America Eats Tavern, however. We’ll try to come back when the new, expanded Minibar reopens. (By the way, how fun would it be to work for Jose Andres’ company, ThinkFoodTank? It’s a culinary think tank that where Andres and his creative team develop new ideas. Hello? Dream job? Me calling.)

All and all, the company really made the night. Any night with Matt and Melissa, and of course, XFE, is worth curling my eyelashes for.  

What about you dear readers? What gets you out of the house? Any good meals recently? I think we’re on a bit of a bad streak lately, what with Alinea and now America Eats – or maybe we’re just way too finicky and should keep our butts at home!