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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Time Travel to Another Naples: The Bourbon Tunnel

In Italy, December 8 is a national holiday. Something about a feast and some reception and being really, really clean, like immaculate.

I don’t know all the details, but there was a parade with red banners and gold fringe. And a lot of offices and government buildings were closed, and everybody was out and about, shopping and eating.

Neapolitan parade

As far as I can tell, it’s the equivalent of Black Friday. The streets were mobbed with families pushing strollers and carting shopping bags.

Since I’m a good little tourist, I knew that it was a national holiday and tried to plan my visit around it.

I used it as an excuse to visit an underground escape route.

Naples has quite a vibrant little underground scene. I’m not talking “underground” as in, sketchy clubs and coffee houses frequented by emo kids looking to get buzzed while listening to My Chemical Romance (I’m not even sure that reference is accurate. What do emo kids listen to? Is anyone called emo anymore?).

I digress. What I mean is underground structures that you can visit in Naples. Like tunnels, catacombs, cisterns and bomb shelters. It’s surprising that streets don’t just collapse upon themselves since they’re seemingly built over the urban planning equivalent of Swiss cheese.

One of these underground tours was located right near my hotel. And, as luck would have it, it was only open Fri-Sunday and on Holy Days. Which included the National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day.

The Tunnel Borbonico, or Bourbon Tunnel, is down a small alley off the left hand side of a very small street off a slightly larger street off the Plaza Del Plebiscito. Basically, if you make it all the way down the street to the church, you’ve gone too far. Also, there’s a bike barrier blocking the alley, so….look for that.

Bourbon Tunnel entrance
Signage for the Bourbon Tunnel.

There’s another entrance/exit at a very posh parking garage nearby. I’m not sure if that’s easier or not, but it does provide a nice excuse to go shopping (although, you’d then have to carry all your bags through the tunnels).

The tours are at 10, noon, 1:30 and 5:30. Me, and the rest of holiday-making Naples, showed up for the 1:30 tour. The place was packed. There was a small holding area for the groups and it was brimming with people. All of them, as far as I could tell, Italian.

Sure enough, a diminutive and perky English-speaking tour guide (I think her name was Sarah?) comes in and calls for all us foreigners and I’m the only one who steps up. My 10 euros got me a private tour. (You’re not allowed to take pictures, so most of the following pictures are from the Bourbon Tunnel website and are linked)

Sarah explained the history of the tunnel as we proceed down a very narrow and cramped stone stairwell. It was conceived in 1853 by Ferdinand II of Bourbon as an escape route from the Royal Palace to the nearby naval barracks. You see, Bourbons had had a rough time of the whole king business, particularly in Italy.

In fact, turns out that trusting the Neapolitan military probably wouldn’t have been a good move for Ferdinand. In 1856, a soldier attempted to assassinate him, and it’s believed that the infection he received from the soldier’s bayonet led to his ultimate demise.

Ferdinand’s tunnel was never really finished during his shaky tenure on the throne. That’s because Ferdinand had some seriously grandiose plans for what was essentially a “get out of Dodge” tunnel. He wanted a whole underground world with shops and other distractions. He drove the poor architect, Errico Alvino, crazy with his add ons and demands.

The tunnel runs about 530 meters long, and 30 meters underground, and is full of caverns and evidence of it’s past as a aqueduct system that provided water for this area of Naples until the mid-1800s. Sarah, who was very much working on her Hollywood-style teaser hype (“You’ll never believe what happened next. Follow me to find out more!”) told me how workers tasked with cleaning and maintaining the wells would sometimes use them to sneak into the wealthy houses to steal from them during the night. And, sometimes, they would get frisky with the lady of the house and nine months later, the equivalent of the milkman’s kid. (She told me the Italian phrase for it but I can’t find it in my notes.)

During World War II, the tunnel and aqueducts were used as an air raid shelter and makeshift military hospital. All told, nearly 10,000 Neapolitans took shelter there throughout the massive German bombings. People whose homes were destroyed moved down into the tunnels permanently. There is tons of debris – handwritten messages on the walls, abandoned toys and household items. It was actually very moving.

After the war, the tunnels were used by the police as an impound lot until the 1970s. Several cars, motorcycles, and, of course, Italian scooters are still down there covered in dust. Finally, the tunnel was used as a sort of municipal dump, with people throwing piles of garbage down there (including dismantled statues), until 2005, when the Associazione Culturale Borbonica Sotteranea began a five year restoration effort and opened it to the public.

It was a lot of history for an hour-and-a-half tour. As I made my way up and out and back into the crowded streets, I thought a lot about the many lives of that tunnel, and the resourcefulness of the Neapolitan people, and how there can be a whole other world of living history right under your feet. How you can miss the whole thing, if you don’t know it’s there, or if you get lost on a tiny side street on your way to an even tinier alley. You really have to pay attention and look hard at things you might take for granted, I guess.

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The only picture I was allowed to take with my camera, at the end of the tour, looking back at the tunnel.

Ultimately, I decided to the whole situation might be better considered over a pizza and some wine. It was the Italian National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day, after all.

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Stalking Stateliness: A Visit to The Royal Palace in Naples

Hey, you know what I love? I mother f*#$k-ing stately home.

I cannot get enough of some grandiose living spaces, y’all. Something with tons of tapestries and baroque stone carved curlicues and some of those stucco putti kids and anterooms to rooms that serve no discernible purpose.

Show me a medal room. Show me a salon. Show me a hall of mirrors. Show me anything that screams over-the-top “Renaissance-in-the-style-of-Kim-and-Kanye.”

Ceiling at the Royal Palace, Naples
Subtle, yes?

I will gladly plunk down 7 euros (around $10) to breathe in your musty antiquities.

The Royal Palace of Naples did not disappoint in any of the categories in my mental “Stuff That A Mother F*#$k-ing Stately Home Should Have” list.

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Just to get some history and context out of the way, according to Wikipedia, the Royal Palace of Naples:

was one of the four residences near Naples used by the Bourbon Kings during their rule of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies(1730-1860). Construction on the present building was begun in the 17th century by the architect Domenico Fontana. Intended to house the King Philip III of Spain on a visit never fulfilled to this part of his kingdom, instead it initially housed the Viceroy Fernando Ruiz de Castro, earl of Lemos…In 1734, with the arrival of Charles III of Spain to Naples, the palace became the royal residence of the Bourbons.

And man, did those Bourbons know how to live it up. They started renovating the hell out of the place, adding the theater, rebuilding the great hall, and adding a new wing. Also, this cool escape tunnel from the palace to the coast to help the monarchy escape the often-rebellious people of Naples. Apparently, the French Bourbons weren’t the only ones who had problems with the populace. (I visited the tunnel too, but we’ll talk about that in another post.)

Things at the Palace got even fancier during the Napoleonic occupation, when Napoleon’s dandy of a brother-in-law Joachim Murat took over the palace. Check. Out. That. Hair. He’s like Prince or something. Loving it.

Joachim Murat

By the way, Murat’s last words while facing a firing squad after the whole Napoleon-getting-overthrown business, were: “Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face.” Holy vanity, that is amazing. This dude? Baller.

Today, the Palace and the adjacent grounds are open to the public. There are all kinds of pseudo-government offices in there, including the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III. That, coupled with the fact that there’s a ton of construction and restoration work being done on both the inside and the outside of the Palace makes the whole visitor experience a little confusing.

Front of the Royal Palace, Naples
This is what the front currently looks like. Not cute.

But I’ve never been one to let a little hammering and scaffolding get in the way of looking at ridiculously ornate tabletop time pieces and portraits of dead fancy people.

side view of the Royal Palace, Naples
This is what the side of the Palace currently looks like. No scaffolding. Much cuter.

I wandered around a bit confused and overwhelmed on a chilly Tuesday morning, the weak December light making everything a bit more cold and austere and milky white.

Entry hall at the Royal Palace, Naples

I had an English audio guide lodged firmly to my ear, which made me unself-conscious enough to gawk freely at the restorers delicately dremeling the pale marble decorations along the entry staircase. I could always just point to the thing at my ear, and shrug if anyone stopped to stare back at me.

Entry hall at the Royal Palace, Naples

I walked past sleeping docents guarding empty theater rooms, their eyelids drooping like the old velvet curtains framing the stage.

Theater at the Royal Palace, Naples

I leaned in close to ornately inlaid wooden tables/bird cages/topiary holders staged in the middle of an otherwise-sparsely furnished room next to a single, stiff chair.

A Throne Room at the Royal Palace, Naples

I listened to two docents chattering away in Italian, pointing at their newspapers and waving their hands while keeping their elbows by their waists and glancing around to see if anyone else was around. When they glanced at me, I quickly became engrossed in a Sevres vase.

A Throne Room at the Royal Palace, Naples

I stood in awe in front of the ridiculously complex precipe (or nativity scene) housed in a chapel and sponsored by a bank. The true meeting of capitalism and religion.

Precipe at the Royal Palace, Naples

I wandered on, through a throne room or two (one for the king, one for the queen), the king’s study, the private apartments, the Hall of Hercules (a ballroom), a music room, a tiny little prayer closet for the queen.

Chapel at the Royal Palace, Naples

All in all, I probably spent about two hours engrossed in bygone splendor, only interrupted by my inability to figure out the sequential order on my audio guide (the rooms were supposedly numbered to correspond, but I could hardly find the numbers and just started guessing.)

That was fine by me. One should stroll through a mother f*#$k-ing stately home, not rush.

Three Temples We Saw in Bali (And One That Got Away)

Borrowed sarong

Bali is called the Land of A Thousand Temples. No, really, it is. I didn’t just make that up. The folks over at The Culture Trip even suggest that the number is really closer to 5,000. This guy says 20,000. Who knows? But in any case, that’s pretty crazy for a tiny island of only 2,232 square miles.

Most Bali villages have at least three temples, which you can read about in greater detail here. In addition, you’ll find lots of smaller, private temples, like a family-owned temple. And then there’s the big holy ones, like pura tirta, which are water temples, and pura segara, which are built by the sea to appease sea deities.

Then there are six Supremely Holy Temples on the island, which is just a whole other level of religious contemplation for this supremely non-religious woman. (We did visit one of the SHT’s however, Uluwatu, which I describe further down).

We did not visit 5,000 temples. We didn’t even visit 1,000. We were lucky to cram in three, frankly. So here are the three temples we saw during our visit to Bali (and one that we really, really wanted to see, but didn’t get a chance to go to).

Pura Tirta Empul – Temple of the Holy Water

This was our first temple stop after a bit of a yawn-inducing visit to a dance school. I think this temple was near Ubud, which is sort of east-central of where we were staying (we were in Nusa Dua, down south along the coastline).

We pulled up and our driver informed us that we needed to wear a sarong into the temple. That would require a donation, of course. Also, he would not be accompanying us into the temple. And, he warned us not to pay for a guide. Waste of money, he said. Nor would there be any audio guide, or really, anything.

Suitably armed with a total lack of guidance or knowledge, we walked into the temple and were met with this sign:

Temple signage

That would be the only signage throughout the temple. A sign telling breeding ladies to stay out.

So here’s my best guess at what the heck this temple was. It appeared to be some sort of water temple, with fountains of water that folks could take a dip in. I’m sure jumping around in the shared public pools are supposed to bring good fortune, or health, or love, or maybe just a nice, cold Bitang beer at the end of the day. I have no idea. I did not jump in the pools, but I did get a beer later that day so, yeah Tirta temple!

Taking a bath at a temple.

(Here’s an actual write up of what the temple was)

There were raised wooden platforms that seem like they might be stages or maybe places where ceremonies took place. Or where sleepy swimmers took naps.

There was lots and lots of gorgeous stone carvings of very scary animals. Maybe they were demons, who knows.

Scary Balinese stone carving

We did see a fenced off area where there were people being led through a worship ceremony. We just peeked in and then left them to it.

We were probably at the temple about 30 minutes, just enjoying the peacefulness of the area, but basically ignorant on what we were supposed to be seeing. The self-guided tour ended at a maze of stalls selling all sorts of tourist swag. Which you HAD to walk through to get back to the parking lot. All told, I believe the part-you-with-some-money stall maze was larger than the temple. There were certainly more people willing to explain to you what you were seeing (including penis bottle openers, interestingly).

Pura Gunung Kawi – Valley of the Kings

This was our second temple and wasn’t too far from the first.

Again, we were told to borrow a sarong in exchange for a suggested donation.

In a unique little twist, this temple featured the tourist swag stalls at the beginning of your visit. So you get a Walk of Shopping Shame right at the beginning of your experience.

This temple appeared to be some sort of royal temple overlooking a very pretty and lush river, and surrounded by rice fields. A quick Google search confirms that this temple is known as the Valley of the Kings. And, that it’s not really a temple or a tomb, but just a spot to honor Balinese royalty.

Valley of the Kings water fountain

We walked around and took pictures, enjoying the scenery, and speculating on the scaffolding and other signs of work that were scattered around. No workmen or anything, so I don’t know if it was lunch, or a luwak coffee break, or prayer time or what.

Spooky cave entrance at Valley of the Kings

We also got to experience the Walk of Shopping Shame on our way back up the steep, 200 or so stairs that took us back to the parking lot. (Oh sorry, 320 stairs according to this poor blogger who was recovering from a twisted ankle).

Stairs at the Valley of the Kings
The stairs at Valley of the Kings, including a vendor at the landing. That’s XFE on the right. He doesn’t want to be on the blog, so I covered him with heart doodles. Because I love him. 

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Disappointed by our first round of temple experiences, we tried again with a different driver. I knew that Pura Luhur Uluwatu was fairly close to our hotel (the St. Regis in Nusa Dua), so we asked to go there. We actually had to pick between Uluwatu and Tanah Lot because apparently they both get very crowded with tourist buses around the same time, so we had to pick just one (since staying away from touristy crowds was very high on our wish lists).

Uluwatu Temple in the morning.

All I really knew about Uluwatu was that it was on an ocean cliff and it had a lot of monkeys.

Monkey gangs at Uluwatu Temple

The same routine repeated itself: driver would not be going in, but he warned us against hiring a guide. Our driver added a new warning, however: no jewelry, no sunglasses, nothing that dangles because the monkeys will rip it off of you and steal it.

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There was an entrance fee, and a donation to borrow a sarong. No shopping stalls though, so Uluwatu for the win!

You could, however, buy fruit to feed the monkeys. To which I say, yeah, no, that’s ok.

There’s another interesting money-making opportunity at work at Uluwatu. If a monkey does snatch your goods, they generally take those items to one of the vendors, who is happy to give your item back to you in return for the purchase of some fruit for the monkey-thief.

Monkey fountain at Uluwatu.

Luckily for us, the monkey gangs were sparse. My super-sexy travel manpanion and personal comedian speculated that the monkey gangs were at their morning meeting, saying things like “OK guys, look: we’ve got a lot of hoop earrings, but we’re low on studs. So today, I want you to focus on getting stud earrings. Also, our sunglass supply is looking a bit thin, so if we could put the young guys on that, I think we can bring our numbers up significantly. And Stan, we’ve had some complaints that you’re getting a bit too grabby with the lady tourists. Keep your paws to yourself, or else I’m putting you on garbage can duty.”

Uluwatu in the early morning.

Uluwatu is very, very beautiful and we were among the few people there early in the morning, so we had the run of the place. The location is breathtaking and there are walkways along the cliffs so you can turn around and get some great pictures of the temple and cliffs.

Uluwatu Temple

And the one that got away.

Pura Tanah Lot

We’d seen pictures of Tanah Lot, which sits on a rock just off shore. Access to the temple is limited to low tide; even so, we were told the temple is barraged by visitors, and surrounded by crowds and vendors.

Here’s a brief description:

The temple’s construction was supposedly inspired by the priest Nirartha in the 15th century; after spending the night on the rock outcrop where the temple now stands, he instructed local fishermen to build a temple on that site. Today, Tanah Lot is regarded as one of Bali’s most important directional temples. A multimillion-dollar restoration effort in the 1990s saved Tanah Lot from falling into the sea.

I wonder if that multi-million dollar restoration includes stalls selling penis bottle openers.

And now, a bad picture of your author in one of her many donation-funded sarongs.

Borrowed sarong
I call this “writer scared of monkey gangs.”