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. 




I’d Rather Be Having a Beer

I know, I know. This isn’t a real post. But work and life in general have been kicking my butt and  it doesn’t appear that it’s going to let up until sometime in mid-May. Plus, it’s still freezing cold here in DC, which has put me in a very foul and non-chatty blogger mood. I am still wearing a winter coat and tights in April.  APRIL.

AND, to just heap the awfulness on the crap plate that can sometimes be one’s daily existence, it’s High Touron season here, which is just so, so aggravating (for more on this phenomenon, go here).

The other night during rush hour, I literally had to listen to a cheerful (and loud) Touron lament the fact that us DC-Northern Virginia commuters seemed so grumpy on the metro. I’m sorry, excuse me? We’re just trying to get from home to work and back again. It’s not a freaking roller coaster ride: it’s a commute. What do you look like when you’re driving to work, balancing a cup of coffee, your phone and whatever other stuff you have to schlep around all day while weaving in and out of traffic around people who may or may not know where they’re going? Are you cheerful in rush hour traffic? Are you whistling Dixie because you get to go to work? I don’t think so.

Now try doing all of that, standing up, in a moving train, in a skirt and heels, pressed up against some government bureaucrat with a body odor problem.

And then let’s just pretend for a minute that some weird stranger is sitting riiiggght next to you in your car and gabbing away two inches from your face about how uncheerful you are about the often-tardy, always-overcrowded and incorrectly-ventilated logistical device that transports you to work at a highway robbery fair of $7-plus dollars a day. Still whistling, Tammy Tourist?

Sorry. I got a bit wound up there. Better to think of something pleasant. Like beer.

Because, even though life and work are kicking my butt, at least there’s nothing preventing me from enjoying a beer. Maybe if they’d install some serve-yourself coolers in the metro cars, we’d all be much more cheerful about our commutes.

Don’t Be That Guy: Metro Edition

It’s finally summertime in Washington DC and therefore, it’s time to partake in a season ritual known as “complain about metro.” (There’s even a whole blog about it)

Don’t get me wrong….this is a sport that can be played year round. It’s just that it becomes especially strident when the town is (a) incredibly muggy and odor-producing and (b) overrun by tourists.

survivor guide

I have nothing inherently against tourist. I, myself, am often a tourist in strange locales. If tourists stop and ask me questions, I generally try to keep the eye-rolling to a minimal and not only answer their stupid questions, but point out the steps I took to come to that answer. For example, here’s a typical exchange I have with a tourist about 90 days of the year:

Red sweaty tourist: “Do you know if I’m on the right side of the platform?”

(Sometimes there’s even a timid “excuse me” thrown in there, which is actually appreciated, unless it’s followed by a “ma’am,” which will get you cut. Other times there’s a whole life story involved before the question, which is not appreciated. I don’t care what part of the Appalachian you came from or how many of your children you brought with you or how this is your first time riding public transportation. I’d already figured that last one out, by the way.)

Cool composed me: “Where are you going?”

RST: “Washington DC.”

CCM: “Well, if we look at the clearly marked electronic signs above our head, they indicate that trains going in this direction end at Largo Town Center. Then, if we cross reference that with the sweat-stained map you’re holding in your hand, or the identical metro maps emblazoned every two feet along the platform, or even the tall brown pillars with a little dot-by-dot list of stops serviced by this platform, we can deduct by the names of the stops that you are indeed on the correct side to go to Washington.”

RST: “When is the next train coming?”

CCM: “Well, I don’t actually control the trains with my Big City Magic, but I can refer you again to the electronic signs above our head which clearly indicates that the next train is in 3 minutes. Don’t worry. There’s no reason to be suspicious of that information. It is generally true and reliable, and the signs are located on every platform in every station on every line.”

Well, usually
Well, usually. These are the instances when I have to keep my smart comments to myself.

There’s a lot more I can add to this, but these tend to be the most often asked questions, although other questions about specific landmarks or locations are often thrown in, to which I have to reply that there is no metro stop called “Lincoln Memorial,” and since I don’t often travel to the memorial because I don’t work there and there isn’t really a restaurant or bar there, I can’t help them any further.

So back to my point: I don’t mind tourists. I understand that they bring money into our fair region – money that, in some magical accounting mystery, doesn’t actually lead to better metro service or lower fares. I just wish the tourists wouldn’t ride the metro when I’m trying to ride it. They can have at it between the hours of 8:30 am and 5 pm and again after 8 pm. Actually, let’s make that 9 pm. Sometimes Happy Hour runs long.

No, today I’d like to complain about my commute last Friday. Let me set the scene, which is easily done in about four sentences: It was a hellacious workday. My normal team of three was just down to me. I had worked harder than a preacher in Las Vegas. I just wanted to go home and have some wine.

My home metro station is serviced by the blue and yellow lines, which runs together for a little while before splitting and going two different directions. The metro station near my work is the blue line, so I take blue line trains to work and home.

But some days, especially on very bad Fridays, you get to the metro station near work and the platform is packed. Which indicates that there are delays on the metro. Probably from someone trying to commit suicide by jumping on the tracks – it actually happens a lot and seriously tests your humanity because while you know that someone has been seriously hurt and probably even killed, all you can think is “dammit, this is so freaking inconvenient.”

Suicide Booth

When there is a delay on the blue line, I have a serious calculation to do based on very little information: Do I go down and pack myself in with the rest of the herd and wait for the  blue line train, or do I resort to Plan B? Plan B involves backtracking several stops in the opposite direction I wish to go in and then switching to a yellow line train, which is (a) obviously less direct and (b) requires changing lines in the intimidatingly large and exceptionally crowded L’Enfant station (which services four different train lines and therefore has about eight platforms, plus a Virginia Rail Express, I think).

So I have to decide whether I think the time it will take to navigate the yellow line option is less time than what it will take for the metro crew to scrape a body off the train tracks and get the train moving again. Sorry, but those are the factors to the formula. No way to sugar coat it.

Unless we’re just dealing with a sick passenger (usually some heat-stroked tourist). Then, things could, hypothetically, be resolved in slightly less time. Unless, that sick passenger got sick all over the train, in which case everyone on the train will have to be off-loaded, the train will have to be taken out of service, which involves backing it to an unused platform, then adding another train to service to pick up all the offloaded passengers, etc. etc. etc.

The point is, there’s really no way to know. It’s a crap shoot. I usually find that whatever Sophie’s Choice I’ve made, I have a sneaking suspicion it was the wrong one. On Friday, I decided to go with the platform that had moving trains on it versus the one that didn’t, and went in the direction of the yellow line. (This is my station. My platform is on the right. Plan B is on the left. Which would you choose?)

farragut 2
My normal direction is on the right. The Plan B option is on the left.

Another calculated risk when riding the metro: When the doors open, you have about 3 seconds to discern whether an empty seat on a very crowded metro during rush hour is empty for a reason, ie: crazy person sitting there. But when I looked at my potential seatmate, no bells went off. I had no gut check, so I sat. (To be fair, neither the train nor station were air conditioned, so perhaps this fogged up my situational awareness ability.)

Sitting next to this guy was the other option.

It wasn’t him I should have been worried about. It was the group of about eight hooligan teenagers who were heckling him mercilessly with very loud questions like, “Oh, are we bothering you? Are we? Huh? I bet you wish we would just get off this train, huh? Oh you’re not going to talk to me? You’re just going to ignore me? Why are you so angry? We’re just all going home to party, right? What do you drink when you party? I bet you drink wine coolers! Did y’all hear what I said? I told him I bet he drinks wine coolers!”

We all heard what you said. Because you said it repeatedly and very, very loudly.

This went on for about four stops, or around 15 minutes. They made sure to beat the windows next to me (he was seated in the aisle seat) to get his attention and wish him a fond journey to his destination. By fond journey, I mean, flip him off and jeer at him.

Switching train lines, I patiently wait on another packed platform for the next yellow line train (by the way, there was a National’s game that night, so extra special times). One pulls up and there’s a mad push towards the doors. It’s not quite Tokyo style where there are little men pushing you in from the back, but as I said, I’m already hot and sweaty and not looking forward to jamming in.

But I need not worry because a woman wearing about 12 laminated work badges, some Reebok/Sketcher fake workout shoes, and the world’s largest gym bag/body duffel (unused, I’m fairly certain) appears out of nowhere and wedged her wide acid-washed jean-covered ass in front of me. She basically shoved me into the side of the train. To which I commented out loud, “Oh yes, please, you should totally go first. I didn’t realize that YOU were waiting for the train. Don’t mind me at all.”

Then, as the doors opened, she maneuvered herself in front of – I kid you not – a man in a wheelchair. A wheelchair!! To which I huffed into the back of her thinning, cotton-candy textured hair, “Oh, you’re going to cut this guy off too? Are you kidding me??”

She did indeed, cut him off too. And she seemed quite satisfied in her seat for the next two stops, while I glared at her from the aisle.

I eventually got home, quite worked up and rattled, which isn’t at all the way you want to attack a bottle of wine on a Friday night.

I’m telling you, if you hear about a shoot-up in a DC metro station, please delete this blog post. Or use it as evidence for why my actions were justified in the name of humanity.