Someone recently described the immediate surroundings of Farragut West to me as “a business area of D.C. rather than touristy.” I think she’s both right and wrong. The Farragut West Metro is near one thing that visitors want to see all the time – the White House, which sits in between and just to the south of the Farragut West and McPherson Square stations. Like the White House, there are other working agency (governmental or non-profit) buildings that, if not having museums in their own right, have at least an exhibit space or a historic building you can sign up to tour. One of the Smithsonian museums (the Renwick Gallery) is also nearby along with a few other points of interest.
There are almost two many things to write about in these storied blocks. I could compose a whole blog post about places named after colors or places named after (sometimes inaccurate) shapes. Or I could write about that most pressing topic detailing how a cat needs to move into the neighborhood and join Major in First Pet duties, even or especially as we continue to mourn the loss of Champ.
But aside from dogs and cats, is there anything more on humans’ minds right now than the pandemic? As a locale with art museums, history museums, and other historically important buildings, the sites near Farragut West testify to the creative expression of what could be, the historical record of what was, and major decision-making in real time. In our literally plagued world, diseases past and present – including COVID-19, which continues to upend our lives – have left their mark on these museums in ways that are particularly salient right now.
A Literary Aside (or Segue)
I have been approaching this post, and the pandemic in general, with the mindset that humans around the world, of every age/race/religion/sex/gender/class, can agree that a deadly and highly contagious virus is a bad thing (even if we don’t all agree on the best way to fight it or the degree to which “normal life” should change in order to mitigate the virus). But then, the book I just finished listening to and the book I am currently reading in hardcover both eerily refer to harrowing pro-disease sentiments.
In Rethinking Readiness, author Jeffrey Schlegelmilch discusses the threat of bioterrorism and the potential of national governments and terrorist groups to deliberately create and unleash a fatal contagion into an adversary’s atmosphere. A different scenario unfolds in Saeed Jones’s memoir How We Fight for Our Lives: Jones recounts a visit to church at age 13 with his grandmother, who brought young Saeed to church several days each week in response to the fact that his mother (her daughter) was Buddhist, the signs that Saeed was gay, and the grandmother’s assessment that Saeed had become “worldly.” Saeed’s grandmother guided him to the pulpit, where the preacher prayed aloud: “His mother has chosen the path of Satan and decided to pull him down too….Put every ailment, every disease on her until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit….Show her your plagues and save this child. Amen.” The grandmother echoed, “Amen.”
The idea that the worst cases of COVID are something that anyone would wish on their worst enemy (let alone their own daughter) is rather disruptive to whatever faith I have in humanity. At museums, can we find something… loftier?
Access to Health Care
I visited the World Bank Group Visitor Center in summer 2019, when the exhibit Human Capital was on view. The World Bank’s blog post about the exhibit is headlined: “What happens when someone is unable to access health or education? These artworks confront these very questions”. This exhibit space showcased art from around the world (including the piece in the photograph, in which Ines Verdugo filled baby bottles with weapons and environmental contaminants), a virtual reality station that felt a bit voyeuristic to me, and an overarching proclamation of the World Bank’s lofty ideals of humans reaching their full potential. Whether it lives up to those ideals is a more complex and debatable topic, but the values sound lovely on paper (or exhibit wall text).
Lofty doesn’t mean impossible, however – just aspirational. One of the panels discussed the World Bank’s advocacy for universal health care, which is a reality in most of the developed world. (Think how better health care access could have helped people in the United States during the pandemic! This article features seven MIT researchers sharing lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19, and disparities in access to health care is a recurring theme.) The seats of leadership of the world’s governments – one of which is a few blocks away from this gallery – would do well to take note.
Stopping the Spread
If you ride the Metro to Farragut West, you’ll see COVID-related signage and objects before you even exit the station. Signs remind passengers to keep six feet apart and to wear masks, which are required by law throughout the transit system. Free disposable masks are quietly available at the kiosks, and hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed. You may come across what is essentially an underground billboard announcing something about WMATA’s disinfectant protocol or air circulation.
Once you ascend to I Street and walk to Farragut Square, you will see picnic tables affixed with stickers reminding us all to mask and distance. There are handwashing machines (though I tested one today, and neither the water nor soap worked; there is something so demoralizing about the empty soap or hand sanitizer dispenser) On the west side of the square are artfully painted concrete blocks that extend the pedestrian space a few feet into 17th Street, stretching between the east exit of Farragut West and the south exit of Farragut North.
Vaccines, Prevention, and Treatment – for the Public Good
We now have something else at our disposal in addition to all those measures: vaccines, given to adults in the United States, at first those who could show they had an elevated need, then pretty much any adult who wanted one. And then teens. The Facebook posts of smizing people of not-quite-all ages getting immunized have been wonderfully uplifting. Currently at the White House, in conjunction with all the scientists out there doing their vital scientific part, President Joe Biden and his administration still have certain demographics to work on getting safely inoculated: the young and the skeptical. Meanwhile, discussions and research on third shots and boosters continue.
In an exhibit in the American Red Cross’s historic headquarters (about half a mile south of Farragut West), the overlapping, interrelated events of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 are depicted as requiring service and sacrifice amid death and grief. Nurses, wearing facemasks much like ours today, deployed during and after the war to treat flu victims. President Woodrow Wilson, understanding the need for morale during a difficult time and for public support of public health efforts, is quoted on a poster in the exhibit: “I Summon you to Comradeship in the Red Cross,” thus positing disease-fighting – and not just war-fighting – as a facet of patriotism. A more recent, 21st-century disease-fighting endeavor of the American Red Cross, joining the Measles Initiative to vaccinate children around the world, is commemorated via an engraved bench in the courtyard.
Joe Biden, as candidate and now as president, has similarly sought morale and unity in the fight against COVID-19, setting an example through his own mask wearing and early receipt of the vaccine. At the “living history” museum that is the White House, he is tasked with leading a cohesive, science-based approach to the pandemic and trying to coordinate responses at multiple government levels and locations. Right now, besides other crises unfolding here and around the world, Biden is dealing with states that have banned mask mandates (yes, you read that right) and trying to encourage the hesitant to get vaccinated.
When I went downtown to the vicinity of Farragut West and visited the Octagon in 2013 as one of my very last Weekly Museum Visits, I posted a picture on Facebook of exhibit text that quoted First Lady Dolly Madison’s words during her time living in the house: “our servants are constantly sick owing to the damp cellar in which they are confined.” I added the caption, “Maybe you shouldn’t confine them in a damp cellar? Just a thought.”
Hopefully we have made some progress in workplace health and safety over the last two centuries, and COVID-19 threw the need for such concern in focus, with a brutal reminder of how interconnected we all are. (Even if we can’t see the interconnectedness, viruses certainly can.) That’s why so many of us have been working from home, why several of the museums mentioned in this post are not currently open to the public, and why we recently saw perhaps the world’s first feline attorney on Zoom (“I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”).
Despite access to all the tools with which employers and employees have creatively made due for a year and a half, the Trump White House held what became known as the superspreader “Rose Garden Massacre” on September 26, 2020. This event served as Trump’s formal introduction of Amy Coney Barrett as nominee for the still-warm (ah, but that subject deserves its own blog post) vacant seat on the Supreme Court. At a time when hosts of similar-sized gatherings or smaller were postponing, downsizing, or going virtual, the White House gathered 150 people, many of whom remained maskless even indoors – and in the subsequent weeks, Trump and several other high-profile attendees developed COVID-19. The field day (or year) that COVID-19 had in the White House in 2020 was, of course, terrifying for White House staffers.
Making Art at Home
As so many people began working from home (or in other cases, were suddenly and sadly out of work) and were otherwise encouraged to stay in their residences as much as possible in the early months of the pandemic, a delightful trend blossomed: people used the objects and creatures in their homes to re-create famous works of art and posted the photos online. It was a phenomenon that could have taken off at any point in the lifetime of widespread Internet usage, but COVID-19 was the catalyst, providing the time and limiting the space that allowed the hobby to (forgive me) go viral.
The work of one artist, Geandy Pavón, contains some tableau renditions of iconic art pieces, in which he and/or his partner Imara López-Boada dressed the part and posed; the series also includes purely original photographic scenes as well. This collection is viewable online, and the Art Museum of the Americas even shows how the art would be displayed in its galleries if it had been a real-life exhibit.
Several blocks south of the Farragut West Metro and next door to the Art Museum of the Americas, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum has objects in its collection attesting to the ages-old role that art-making can play in alleviating quarantine or sickness-related boredom – even if Instagram wasn’t a thing in the nineteenth century. It’s a bit morbid, but I realized that if I put in various old-timey diseases or related phrases as my search terms on the museum’s Collections search page, I would find examples of parallels to the tableau photography and bread baking and knitting and all the other creative pursuits of 2020. A quilt “was made by Nellie Everhart as a teenager while recovering from an illness” in the late 1800s. At the ages of six through eight years old in the 1850s, Susanna Kent sewed a quilt: “According to family history, Susanna ‘had been stricken with a crippling disease’ (possibly infantile paralysis commonly known as polio), so she worked on the quilt while incapacitated, although the family stated that Susanna later recovered her mobility.”
Art Making, and Art Interpretation, in Their Time
Art is a product of its time, and art displayed in museums connects moments in time: the moment when the art was made, and the moment when it is interpreted, exhibited, and seen by audiences. During a staycation week I took in 2019, I saw 6.13.89 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (yet another museum near Farragut West) – an exhibit about an exhibit that was planned, then scrapped, by the Corcoran 30 years earlier. That exhibit, of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, was to be called The Perfect Moment. The short version of what went down: Mapplethorpe’s photography, much of it homoerotic and boundary-pushing, raised ire and pearl-clutching and was canceled in response to political pressure. All this tension unfolded during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s (Mapplethorpe himself died of AIDS in March 1989).
I sat in a restaurant and scribbled notes in a notebook (this was staycation, after all!) after leaving the exhibit, writing: “what role does the artist’s death play in the sequence of events? What if he had lived a handful of months longer and could speak up for himself in the controversy?”
Moreover, what did the title The Perfect Moment refer to? Many people objected to the exhibit being shown in that moment (while numerous others objected to it being canceled). Meanwhile, the art itself had been made in a time that was far from perfect for the artist and his community, and the artist wouldn’t have lived to see the exhibit even if the Corcoran did hold it that summer as planned. Did the perfect moment end up happening in 2019, with the 30 years of hindsight (and societal progress) that allowed the Corcoran to finally put on a Mapplethorpe exhibit? Perhaps it was perfect, or at least fortuitous, that the 30-year anniversary fell in 2019, and not a year or two later when the current pandemic would have put its own damper on the meta-exhibit.
When I visited the Renwick Gallery (perhaps the closest museum to Farragut West) a few weeks ago and came face-to-face with a giant, shaped-like-COVID glittering black ball at the front of a sculpture, I figured the inspiration for the piece must have been figuratively shaped by COVID-19, too. The wall text explains, however:
The totality of time lusters the dusk is [Lauren] Fensterstock’s first work to explore how weather and celestial activity have been used as metaphor, an especially potent idea in our current age of extreme weather and changing climate amid a devastating global pandemic. Although this new direction came before the appearance of the 2019 coronavirus, the foreboding and destabilizing beauty of Fensterstock’s work takes on additional meaning in a reality where the myth of certainty has been exposed as fallible.
It is not the case that the sculpture, resembling the appearance of the 2019 coronavirus, was made and constructed entirely “before the appearance of the 2019 coronavirus.” After all, Fensterstock created the work in 2020 and, according to the museum’s blog, “During the construction of this work, Fensterstock herself noted how her ‘comet’ became reminiscent of the virus, adding an ominous contemporary layer onto its appearance.” From what I have read, it seems that the idea for the sculpture – whose title itself (like the titles of the two Corcoran exhibits above) contains a reference to time – pre-dates the emergence of COVID-19, even as it explores weather and climate (which are intertwined with how a virus like COVID jumps to humans in the first place). There were other works of art on view at the Renwick that were more explicitly COVID-related: a set of artful face masks; an installation by Rowland Ricketts in which lights brighten or dim based on changing pandemic statistics.
What will future museum exhibits about COVID-19 look like? What about future museum exhibits that are not about COVID-19 per se, but that cannot be understood without contextualizing the topic within the era of COVID-19?
That’s Not Even All the Museums
In October 2011, I wrote a very brief blog post about Neighbors to the President, a consortium of museums located near the White House. It does not appear to exist anymore (the link I used ten years ago is broken, and I couldn’t find any other information online), but individual museums are still around.
With all this time spent at home, the domestic sphere is especially familiar right now. I have yet to visit two historic house museums in the area, the DACOR Bacon House and Decatur House. The very limited hours for taking a tour make them more challenging destinations to visit, but they are on my bucket list nonetheless. And while I have visited the White House to see the holiday décor and have been to the Ellipse numerous times, I hope to take a tour of the gardens someday.
Then, I want to bust out of domestic settings – like many other people, I have a lot of pent-up wanderlust right now. I need to visit the Department of the Interior Museum (which I’m sure will make me want to travel to even farther-flung parts of the country) as well as the FDIC Exhibit. And I may have also read somewhere that, in addition to the Art Museum of the Americas, the Organization of American States also has gallery space in its building on F Street. Don’t quote me on that, but do let me know if you have any information one way or the other.
Farragut West is on the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines.
****Correction 09/04/2021 to state that it is the preacher, not the grandmother, who says the quoted words in How We Fight for Our Lives.