Peeps in the Museums Roundup

Among this year’s entries in the Washington Post’s Peeps diorama contest are the usual references to current events, celebrities, and cultural trends: the Keystone “Peepline” and the measles outbreak at Disneyland, Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry, the Ice Bucket Challenge and the color of the dress. Yet many other dioramas depict pivotal moments of the past.

David Deep (who perhaps should change his name to David Peep for Peeps-related matters) and Erica Webber submitted The Assassination of Peepraham Lincoln, which shows Ford Theatre’s most famous and most tragic event. More than one diorama references “Apeepomattox.”

We the Peeple by Karen Wootton and Aaron Klebanoff shows Peeps adorned with white wigs signing the Constitution, inspired by Howard Chandler Christy’s painting Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, which shows a historic moment that took place in Independence Hall and which is on display in the United States Capitol. Meanwhile, We the Peeps (by Rachel Hirz, Andie Hirz, and Teresa Lovelace) also shows the signing of the Constitution, with the Christy painting in the background.

In Edmund Peepus Bridge: March 7, 1965 by Keith Lyndaker, Lini Lyndaker and Rachelle Schlabach, Peeps lead the march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL. Chloe Simpson, Colt Simpson, and Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson help viewers remember the Alamo with Peep in the Heart of Texas.

A Peep diorama at the 2014 National Book Festival, depicting a scene from Harry Potter

A Peep diorama at the 2014 National Book Festival, depicting a scene from Harry Potter

Besides these historic scenes, we also get to see an art museum (A Trip to the National Peeptrait Gallery by Lee Ann Zies, Debbie Zies, Scott Smith, Patricia Milon and Barbara Milon) and a national park (Yellowstone National Peeps Park by Juliet Line, Anne Apynys and Christopher Line).

Several dioramas are literary, re-creating scenes from The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.

Here are links to the “Top 50 Peeps dioramas for 2015” as well as “The best of kids’ Peeps dioramas.

Happy Easter!

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Valve Inventor at Medical Center

I was recently at the Medical Center-NIH Metro, with a little bit of time to fill before a doctor’s appointment nearby in Bethesda. I entered the National Institutes of Health campus and expressed interest in seeing the museum.

The security officer gave me a good-natured laugh. “We don’t have a museum!”

Oh dear. “But – your website says – the Stetten Museum in Building 10-”

She shrugged. “Okay, you can go to Building 10 and see if there’s a museum.” She gave me a visitor’s badge and a map and had me walk through the metal detector.

NIH’s website lists three museum exhibits in Building 10, and three exhibits each located in one of three other buildings on the NIH campus. I started with the first exhibit listed, which is also the first one I came upon in Building 10 (Innovation and Invention: NIH and Prosthetic Heart Valves).

It is a small exhibit in the lobby of a building that is clearly used primarily for something other than museum exhibits. I read about the people who invented various iterations of the heart valve, continuously trying to improve the invention and save lives, and I read about the people who benefited from these advances.

Work of art outside Building 10 on NIH campus

Work of art outside Building 10 on NIH campus

I ran out of time before I could find the other two medical exhibits in Building 10, though I did also peruse a series of science-inspired art pieces along a hallway. If I had had more time to spare, I would have loved to see more of the whole NIH campus. I never had a clear sense of exactly where I was and was not allowed to go, so I would have had to balance my curiosity with my desire to be a good visitor and not get in trouble.

NIH’s museum is similar to some other museums that I’ve visited, in the sense that the place is primarily something else, not a museum. Other examples that come to mind from my Weekly Museum Visits are Voice of America and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Headquarters. I was able to take a tour of both these sites, but they were not places where I could have just walked in at any time during the day, spent as much time there as I wanted, and bought postcards at a gift shop. Instead, I had to sign up for guided tours in advance and show up at an appointed time and stay with the guide at all times. I am pretty sure that mentioning either of these places would elicit that oft-asked question in others: “How do you find out about all these things?” because they are just not on the major-things-to-do-in-DC radar.

On the other hand, there are places like the Capitol Visitor Center and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that have specific non-museum functions, but also have a popular, well-known, robust museum experience component. These buildings have, as you can imagine, high security, and during the guided tour, staying with your guide is crucial. But there are also exhibit spaces and gift shops you can explore on your own, and brochures and kids’ activities you can take home.

There are interesting places everywhere, to be sure. But the not-so-museum-y-museums do raise a valid question: how welcoming an experience do they provide visitors? As much as I am always eager to explore, and as careful as I am to follow rules, there is still that lingering sense of “am I really supposed to be here?” Should I really be hanging out on the NIH campus when I am neither a medical professional nor a staff member nor a patient?

And I can’t exactly blame NIH for not spending more time making glossy exhibit guides or building a gift shop. (Or, if it already has these things, I can’t blame NIH for not making them more prominent to visitors.) Their business of curing diseases and treating patients does seem a wee bit more important.

So on that day, after spending as much time as I had available looking at valves and paintings, I left NIH, dropped my visitor badge in the hopefully correct receptacle, and walked the half mile to my decidedly un-museum-like doctor’s office, where, like most doctors’ offices, nary a person ever comes just to look at exhibits.

Medical Center-NIH is on the Red Line.

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Sit Down and Rest Ya Feet at Bethesda

The Bethesda Metro station is not near any museum I’ve ever visited, but it is near a lot of other things to do: free festivals throughout the year, art galleries, movie theaters, restaurants that are good for dates and family birthday dinners, as well as stores and doctors’ offices. Without setting foot in any building, you can see art all over Bethesda just walking down the street. Among all the uniquely shaped works are the Poetry Benches.

Poetry Bench in Bethesda

Poetry Bench in Bethesda

The Poetry Benches are scattered throughout downtown Bethesda, and they are bits of color and whimsy on which people can sit. Each one is carved into a curvy shape, painted with images, and emblazoned with a snippet of verse. The benches are fun and cute, and they add something cheerful to bus stops and sidewalks.

One of Silver Spring's Benches on the Block

One of Silver Spring’s Benches on the Block

Bethesda is not the only place on its Metro line, or in its county, that has a series of public art pieces that are also places to sit. Silver Spring is glittered with the mosaic benches known as Benches on the Block, a project of Arts on the Block (a local arts organization for youth). The pastel tiles that the sitter leans his or her back against suggest abstract nature scenes.

The annual Please Sit on the Art project is another reason to love Takoma.

The annual Please Sit on the Art project is another reason to love Takoma.

In Takoma Park (and spilling over to also include Takoma DC), the annual series of reCYCLE (Please Sit on the Art) began in 2013. These pieces are all one-of-a-kind, and some are rather more comfortable to use as actual seats than others. (One work, despite the title of the exhibit as a whole, had a sign advising viewers not to sit on it.) Some have been animal shaped: butterfly, spider, octopus. Others have been fashioned to evoke games, traffic signs, seatbelts, and fairy tales.

The one downside to trying to go out and photograph all these pieces is that there might be someone sitting on them (and I just want a picture of the bench itself, not a photo of a potentially annoyed stranger just minding their own business). But the presence of people on the seats indicates that the pieces are serving their purpose as functional pieces of art that people notice and interact with.

Bethesda is on the Red Line.

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Champion of Human Rights at Friendship Heights

“Next station stop, Friendship Heights,” the Metro train driver announced once. “Last station stop in the District of Columbia. Also the first station stop in the state of Maryland.”

He was correct – with multiple entrances along the DC-Maryland border in NW DC, the Friendship Heights Metro is in both jurisdictions.

Gandhi Memorial Center

Gandhi Memorial Center

If you walk southwest along Western Avenue from the Metro, you will reach the Gandhi Memorial Center in about one mile, on the Bethesda, Maryland side of the street. Maintained by the not-for-profit Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation, the Gandhi Memorial Center, according to the website, “houses headquarters for the Foundation, a library and special meeting rooms for lectures and films depicting the life and activities of Mahatma Gandhi and the cultural heritage of India.” It is staffed entirely by volunteers.

I visited the Center in 2014, when it was showing the art exhibit Akshara by Shanthi Chandrasekar. In this space dedicated to a historical figure and his culture and religion, an art exhibit was on display that explored the scientific underpinnings of language. It was a lot of interdisciplinary packed into a relatively small space.

On the day I visited, the artist herself happened to be there. She engaged me in interesting conversation about her work and its inspiration, like languages whose alphabets are ordered based on the degree to which the mouth opens when making the sound. In the course of our conversation, Chandrasekar brought up an idea that has stayed with me: that human institutions (such as the dowry and the caste system) start out with good intentions but then become corrupted. This outlook was different from what has generally been my belief, that humans’ intentions, as well as our ability to implement those intentions and achieve the desired outcome, gradually improve over time.

Is the Gandhi Memorial Center a museum? An art gallery? I ran a search on the Center’s website and could not find any references to these terms. It is, I suppose, most accurately described as a specialized library with a few permanent sculptures, and two rooms adorned with temporary art exhibits, whose all-volunteer staff puts on cultural programs and puts out a regular publication that focuses on a spiritual understanding of Gandhi and big ideas like truth and peace. Perhaps it is appropriate that a site dedicated to these ideals is located near a Metro station that has a positive ideal in its own name.

Friendship Heights is on the Red Line.

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Highest Ground at Tenleytown

Tenleytown-AU is, as the name suggests, near American University (though not so near that there isn’t a free shuttle for students running between the Metro stop and their campus). AU is the home of the American University Museum in the Katzen Arts Center. (The Katzen Arts Center is also an events venue; on the day I visited the museum in 2010, the signs on the doors indicated that “Sebastian and Chloe” would soon have a wedding there. Congratulations and best wishes, Sebastian and Chloe!)

Fort Reno Park

Fort Reno Park

Also near the Tenleytown Metro is Fort Reno Park. Fort Reno Park is one of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, and an interesting one for a few reasons:

It is the highest land elevation in Washington, DC. This feature made it a good candidate for the uses it has had over the centuries…

It was involved in the only Civil War battle in DC. Jubal Early, a general for the Confederacy, led an attack from Virginia (by way of Rockvile, MD) on DC’s Fort Stevens. Fort Reno provided support, as discussed in this National Park Service article: a shell fired from a long-range gun at Fort Reno killed four Confederate soldiers almost as many miles away.

It was a secret Continuity of Government site during the Cold War. A series of sites made up what was known as a Federal Relocation Arc in the 1950s, where government leaders and documents could be safeguarded in the event of a nuclear attack. Fort Reno was chosen for one of these sites due to its high altitude, and it took on the code name Cartwheel. An article on the Greater Greater Washington blog states, “By creating the hardened sites with microwave communications facilities, federal planners were ensuring safe havens for the executive branch that would remain in contact with other civil and military leaders throughout a crisis” (and then goes on to discuss the program in much greater depth).

It is a community gathering place today. Nowadays, Fort Reno Park boasts community gardens, free summer concerts, and a great place for viewing Fourth of July fireworks.

Does anyone agree that it would be awesome if the Continuity of Government tower could be turned into a museum – a historic house museum of sorts? I think I am especially drawn to this idea right now because I am currently reading a novel set during the Cold War.

Fort Reno Park maintains relevance today as it is, but should NPS decide they want to increase the interpretive use of this place, there is plenty of fascinating material with which to work.

Tenleytown-AU is on the Red Line.

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Of Bowls and Paintings

Happy Puppy Bowl Sunday, everyone! Today is the day when every true-blooded American buys some beer and chili and snacks and gets together with their friends to watch a cuteness explosion of puppies romp around a room and play with toy balls. The event is so named because of the water bowls from which the puppies drink – there are cameras that give the viewer the water-bowl’s-eye-view of the puppies’ tongues as they quench their thirst.

At some point in history, humans foolishly thought that they too could win hearts and minds and television viewership in a way that only pooches can, and human beings copied the Puppy Bowl idea and invented their own version of it. Trying to outdo the Puppy Bowl, the humans named their event the Super Bowl. The human version involves two teams of people romping around a field and playing with a ball.

This competition, in turn, led to the tradition of the annual art wager, in which an art museum from the losing Super Bowl team’s city lends a piece from its collection to an art museum from the winning team’s city. This year, the Seattle Art Museum (in the home city of the Seahawks) is wagering Albert Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, and the Clark Art Institute, located in Williamstown, Massachusetts and representing the New England Patriots, is betting West Point, Prout’s Neck by Winslow Homer.

The Mitt. Photo by Diana Lai Peters

The Mitt. Photo by Diana Lai Peters

I have some ties to New England, but ultimately, the Seahawks are my team. In a post last year, I explained why a non-football-fan like me even has a favorite team, and why it is the Seahawks.

Seattle is full of art. There is the Seattle Art Museum (which I did not visit during my 2008 trip), which is part of the Super Bowl art wager, and its Olympic Sculpture Park (which I did visit). Internet searches list too many other art museums and galleries to name here or to visit in one long weekend. And you can’t walk around outside in downtown Seattle without running into a work of art.

One example is The Mitt by Gerard Tsutakawa, pictured here (with me in blue and green). My friend and I happened upon this sculpture as we were walking to Qwest Stadium to volunteer.

By the end of the night, we will know which painting will be making its way from one coast to the other. However you are spending your evening, stay safe!

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An Address with a Dress at Van Ness

Happy 2015! Whatever holiday(s) you celebrate, I hope museums were involved.

Now that the holiday season is over, I am going to resume blogging about the museums, parks, historic sites, art galleries, and other points of interest near each Metro station. I am filled with a healthy wanderlust, but unfortunately, I have no means to travel. Fortunately, I have a belief that interesting things are everywhere. Interesting things are all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Van Ness-UDC is, in my opinion, a poorly named Metro station. The UDC part makes sense, since the University of the District of Columbia is right there. But what does Van Ness refer to? The street that actually has the Metro entrances is called Veazy. The neighborhood is actually called Forest Hills.

One of my reasons to go to the Van Ness Metro for fun would be to hear an author speak at independent bookstore and coffeehouse Politics and Prose, where I have heard illustrator Eric Rohman and novelist Myla Goldberg discuss their work. In a completely different direction, about a mile-long walk from the Metro, is one of my Weekly Museum Visits: Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, which I have written about here and here.

A dress on display at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens

A dress on display at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens. Historic house museums often showcase the domestic sphere, or women’s sphere, in a way not as obvious in other kinds of history museums.

In a world that may or may not have too many historic house museums, as this article discusses (I’ll come back to this topic), some of the things that make Hillwood stick out in my memory are the focus on Russian and French decorative art (especially Faberge eggs), the pet cemetery and other indicators of a love of dogs, and the focused outreach the museum currently does to welcome LGBTQ visitors as well as adoptive families.

But in many ways, visiting Hillwood is like visiting other historic house museums: seeing the rooms, the gardens, the gift shops; oohing and ahhing from the grand staircase to the tiniest jewel case.

The article linked above explores the conflicting opinions on historic house museums. On the one hand, we may simply have too many of an unsustainable museum model. On the other hand, there are successful examples, and this kind of museum offers a different glimpse into history from what we see in high-tech history museum exhibits or on now-empty battlefields.

Ruth Graham, author of the linked article, writes:

As museums, they often emphasize the intimate domestic stories of women and family life, frequently overshadowed by grander narratives in larger museums.

Indeed, historic house museums give us a sense of how the powerful people of history (often the men of history textbooks) interacted with their spouses and children, how slaves and servants maintained the domestic lifestyle enjoyed by the owner of the home, how these property-owning heroes of history viewed animals and the land itself. As the private, domestic sphere has traditionally been the women’s sphere, the contributions and influence of women may be more apparent in houses-turned-museum than in other kinds of history museums.

This is not to say that all historic house museums fall into the Prominent White Man Et Al category. In the USA and certainly around the world, there are historic house museums showcasing the home lives of a diverse bunch of people. Not every historic house is opulent; museums like the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin in Ellicott City, MD show the lifestyles of families of humbler means.

And, there are those historic house museums that primarily highlight a female historical figure. Hillwood, with its central protagonist Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), is one such example. Post was a businesswoman, socialite, and philanthropist, and as is apparent from a visit to Hillwood, an art connoisseur and collector, and a lover of animals. The daughter of cereal magnate C.W. Post, she inherited ownership of Postum Cereal Company (which has since been known as General Foods, Inc. and eventually merged with Kraft). The collection itself reflects Post’s wealth and her personal taste in art, while her hospitality is a major thread in the museum’s outreach and programming.

Ultimately the “great historic house museum debate” may not be an easy one to settle. But the windows of a house can be fascinating windows into history.

Van Ness-UDC is on the Red Line.

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