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.

IMG_2254
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.

IMG_2285

Wars, Orphans and Orbs: Dubrovnik’s Old Town

My travel buddy for life XFE and I live in a part of Northern Virginia/Greater Washington DC area known as Old Town. It’s pretty cute. Full of cobblestone sidewalks, antique shops, and historic buildings with plaques announcing that George Washington once drank some cider on this exact location. Most of the old houses, churches and pubs were built in the 1770s, which is one of the reasons it’s the third oldest historic district in the country.

But, our Old Town is a pimply preteen compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

Dubrovnik's Stradun Street in Old Town
Old Town’s Stradun Street

Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century by a group of refugees from Epidaurum. I don’t even know where Epidaurum is or was. I think it’s part of Greece or Rome or something, but I couldn’t say for sure. Let’s just say, shit is that old.

I had read a history of Croatia, including the sly way that the rich merchants in Dubrovnik were able to play conquerors off each other and avoid being occupied themselves. Dubrovnik stayed an independent city-state until the French came along in the early 1800s.

Funny wall decoration in Old Town, Dubrovnik
Funny wall decoration in Old Town

Despite my considerable, newly-acquired Croatian expertise, we decided to continue our custom of hiring a tour guide for the day to show us around the city. After searching around on the Interwebs a bit, I found a great new website called ToursByLocals.com. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: You click on “Find a Tour” and the website gives you a whole list of local tour guides along with their qualifications, photos, expertise, prices, and recent reviews. It was totally like Match.com for tour guides.

We picked Almira as our tour guide, asked if we could have an earlier start time, and ToursByLocals handled the rest. Almira emailed us within 48 hours of our request and we were confirmed. We’ll definitely be using them again.

Our Dubrovnik guide, Almira
You can see Almira. That’s her hat on the bottom left.

The morning of our tour, we walked the 30 minutes from our hotel to Pile Gate entrance to the Old Town. Almira was right on time and very friendly. Armed with water and sun hats, we started our walking tour right outside the gate in a public square where executions took place during World War I (Italians executing Croats).

Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
“Your execution super spot since 1308”

Almira explained to us how the Epi-Greek/Roman people established their settlement on the island and named it Laus, while just across the way at the bottom of Srd Mountain, the Slavs had their own little settlement called dubrova which meant oak forest. When the channel that separated these two settlements was filled in the 12th century they were united. The main street through the Old Town is called Stradun but in Croatian, it’s known as Paca, which derives from the word for “dirt,” signifying the dirt road that was filled in to connect the two settlements.

Stradun in Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Another view of the Stradun

Right inside Pile Gate, Almira showed us a map that shows you where the Old Town was damaged during what Almira and other Croats call the Homeland War, the Croatian War for Independence from Yugoslavia and an emboldened Serbia. We sat silently perusing the map while behind us vendors sold ice cream and school children ran around trying to give each other the Croatian version of cooties.

The primary evidence of the war can be seen in the rooftops. All the roofs in Old Town—which you can clearly see from the top of the city’s medieval wall walk–are made of distinctive orange terra cotta tiles. More than 70% of Croatia’s red roof tiles were destroyed during the Balkan Wars, so everywhere you look, there are new tiles interspersed with old tiles. There was quite the collection and conservation effort after the war, with nations around the world donating replacement tiles made in Toulouse, France.

View of roofs in Dubrovnik, Croatia

It was quite sad to see beautiful old medieval wars pocked with shrapnel, but it’s nothing compared to the damage seen by other cities in Croatia. In fact, it was the attacks on Dubrovnik, a much-beloved UNESCO-protected Heritage Site that finally galvanized the international community to say, “whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s enough of that. It’s all well and good to annihilate some podunk little village in the middle of nowhere, but let’s not go after a cultural and artistic center.”

Red roof tiles in Dubrovnik, Croatia
What’s that? More red-tiled roofs? No problem.

After our tour, XFE and I went to the War Photo Limited museum, a two-story museum owned and operated by a photographer who had covered the Homeland War. It was very well done and a gut wrenching experience. It’s difficult to see contemporaries–people wearing similar clothes to you, using common  everyday brands that you use—and seeing them in the midst of war right in their own streets. Instead of seeing photos of brave soldiers, you saw photographs of people just trying to walk down their street and getting hit by sniper fire.

Streets of Old Town, Dubrovnik, Croatia

When we walked out of the cool, dark museum and out into the sunny narrow streets of the Old Town, I had to blink away what I’d just seen. We walked quietly through the beautiful narrow streets, our sandals skimming the slippery, worn down stones that made up the streets. We stumbled across church after church, many of them featuring statues of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, St. Blaise. There are, according to Almira, 27 St. Blaise statues throughout the tiny city, including three seated figures and one in profile.

St. Blaise Church, Dubrovnik
I can’t spot it, but I’m sure there’s a St. Blaise statue somewhere in there.

We walked past St. Nicholas church. Good old Saint Nick was the patron saint of fisherman, so of course he has a church in this port city. What I didn’t know is that St. Nicholas is often pictured with three gold orbs, which were a dowry he gifted to three poor sisters. He threw the first two orbs through their window, but he threw the third down the chimney, which is why he’s associated with chimneys.

We also went past a tiny window with a sort of Lazy Susan swivel that was used by noble ladies to drop off their unwanted babies in the dead of night. Apparently, Dubrovnik is also home to the oldest orphanage, which was established in the Old Town in the 1400s. In another romantic touch, according to Almira, the babies would be given a half coin piece and the mother would keep the other half. That would allow the disgraced noble woman to come back and retrieve her child someday, if her circumstances had somehow changed.

By now, we’d worked up a good appetite and were ready for a mid-day glass of white wine, so we headed to one of Almira’s recommendations for lunch, Kobun, which lies at the top of some stairs that are very similar to the Spanish Steps in Rome. After a leisurely lunch of mussels for me and monkfish for XFE, we walked past some stalls selling jewelry, including a type of necklace called a Dubrovnik button, also called Konavoske Puce. It’s like an open filigree design that’s used in necklaces and earrings. I picked one with a bit of coral, which is also very popular in this area.

Croatian mussels

It was a very pleasant and illuminating day. In the battle of the Old Towns, I’d have to give Dubrovnik a slight edge over Old Town, Alexandria. But just barely. After all, we’ve got George Washington plaques all over the place to tell us how important everything is.

Dubrovnik's farmer's market
Dubrovnik’s farmer’s market, which had some amazing candied almonds, lemon and orange peels.