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National Gallery of Art: Un-Highlights Tour
If you’ve ever gone through a museum and found yourself lost and unsure how to travel through it, you probably think a tour is the way to go. After all, someone is telling you what to look at and what to pay close attention to. But if you’ve ever found those too dull, or too stifling, you probably would want something that offers a little more to you than the boring art lecture you always skipped in college.
That’s where Museum Hack comes in.
Museum Hack is a New York-based company that plans tours in museums in New York City, Washington D.C, Chicago, and San Francisco. Their approach is to host tours with unique themes that offer different museum experiences than what you are used to. These tours are informal, strange, and have many opportunities to try new things in museums.
I recently took a tour with Museum Hack in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The tour I took was called the Un-Highlights tour, and was a two-hour tour filled with gossip, games, photo opportunities, and member participation. The tour guide, Molly, took me and the other participants (all younger people in their early to mid-twenties) around the NGA. We stopped at various paintings and pieces, where Molly explained the history of each piece, and gave information we may not have known otherwise.
The first painting we saw was Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci. Described as “the piece we should quickly see if the museum is on fire,” Molly told us about Ginevra, a sixteen-year-old girl and poet whose family commissioned the painting as an engagement gift. As Ginevra was marrying a man who was twice her age, Molly gave the participants a challenge. Throughout the tour, we had to look at the men featured in the portraits and statues and take a picture of the one we think Ginevra should end up with. At the end, we’d tell our stories as to why she should pick them.
Ginevra also tied into a history lesson about the museum. We learned about the founding of the NGA, how the museum acquired the painting, and how the painting was the only da Vinci piece that could be viewed in the Americas. Similar history lessons and stories were told for other works in the museum, including Raphael’s The Alba Madonna, Joshua Johnson’s The Westwood Children, and the portraits of Gilbert Stuart.
It was also during this time that we learned of figures we may not have known about. We learned about Sir Jeffrey Hudson, a little person who was named Royal Dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria in the early 1600s. We also learned about Brook Watson, a man who survived a shark attack and had it immortalized in a large painting. These are people we may not have known about had we not received a unique tour experience such as this.
It was also during these stops that we played various games. In the rooms of Dutch paintings, we were given the game “My Dutch Nightmare.” Everyone had to take 2-5 pictures of the art in the Dutch rooms and construct a story based on what we saw as our Dutch nightmare. These involved blind dogs, drunken poetry writing sailors, and troll ladies hiding under ladders. We also played a game in another room called “Burn, Buy, and Steal,” where we had to find three paintings in a set of rooms that we would destroy, invest in, or take out of the museum if we could. This gave the participants a chance to be creative with their likes and dislikes of each picture, and allowed them to focus on details they might not have noticed otherwise. We even posed in a group photo recreating the Brook Watson shark attack as a tableau vivant, or a silent recreation of an image.
Although we had a lot of ground to cover, the tour did not feel too long or too boring at any points. Molly was kind enough to offer us chocolate if we needed energy, and the pacing of each stop allowed us to break the monotony with games. The participants were not given as much time to look at all the works in the NGA, but by focusing on a few, we gained knowledge and experience that otherwise would not have been found.
I personally found it fascinating. I traveled around with complete strangers, but I was made to feel comfortable with them. The games we played allowed insight into each one of them, showing how they viewed art and how they could spin tales. Even at the end, when we revealed our suitors for Ginevra, we each had differing reasons based on what we knew about the artistic girl (I just picked the statue of the muscular and endowed man we saw near the end of the tour. No surprise, I won and received a Ginevra magnet). Even when the tour was done, we were offered the chance to go back and see exhibits we passed before or to find other tours to participate in later.
Museum Hack offers a unique touring experience that is unlike any you could get. Those local to D.C. should try the Un-Highlights tour or the Badass Bitches tour they offer every other weekend. Those in the other cities should check out their website and see what else they have to offer. It’s a fun way to spend time at a museum and gave me a lot to take out of it, and not just a Ginevra magnet or a picture of me posing like one of Degas’ Little Dancer statues.