Confronting My Strange Aversion To Art At The National Portrait Gallery

Washington DC

I’m not a complete heathen; I have spent many hours in art museums around the world admiring some of the world’s greatest works. But unless the piece in question is incredibly famous or I’m forced to go, visiting an art museum is usually not high on my travel to-do list. History museums, pop culture, even food, yes, I love them all, but art and I have a very shaky past. Part of it stems from a certain lack of overall knowledge when it comes to art. I like what I like and avoid what I don’t care for. I don’t know the subtext for most major works and I’m not entirely sure that I care. When forced to visit art museums though, I almost always enjoy the experience, so I’m not sure from where my overall disinterest stems. I want to change that though, awareness of art and the great masters is important I think, especially if I ever want to live out my dream of being a “Jeopardy!” champion, and so I’m taking some steps to improve my knowledge. Earlier this year I finally understood the great value of touring art museums with true experts. People who can share those deeper meanings I’d been missing all of these years, carefully avoiding works of little interest and instead focusing on pieces that mean something to the world and, ultimately, to the viewer. My most recent step in this process was by once again working with a company I have come to know, love and trust – Context Travel – by joining one of their expert docents on a National Portrait Gallery Tour, one of Washington, DC’s least well-understood museums.

This year I’m working with Context Travel throughout the year to highlight some of their tours around the world, but I’m certainly no stranger to their walking tour experiences. I’ve been patronizing them for years because, unlike so many other companies, they offer walks that are completely different from anything else offered. As one of their Deep Travelers, I’m proud to say that Context and I both agree that travel is an education, one born from a natural cultural curiosity. That education doesn’t have to happen far from home either, it can occur even while playing tourist in your own city, like I did recently in Washington, DC.

Discovering a Hidden Corner of Art & Architecture

The problem with living in Washington, DC is that we’re spoiled for choice in terms of monuments, memorials and museums. Some of the best institutions in the country and even the world are in Washington, making it a fantastic place to visit no matter what your interest. The issue for me though is that since I live here, I almost never take advantage of these incredible treasures in my own backyard. I know, I’m terrible, but I think we’re all guilty of ignoring those great sights close to home and I’m certainly no exception. That’s one reason why I’ve enjoyed working with Context this year; the American Biography tour of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery was another attempt for me to explore more of my own city. The difference with the American Art Tour though is that I had never before visited either of these two institutions; I’m not even sure I knew that they existed. That mistake was quickly corrected when I met my docent Abram one sunny Saturday afternoon in the heart of DC’s cultural district.

While art may not be in my wheelhouse, architecture is and that’s the first thing I noticed as I walked into this historic building. Originally built in the mid-19th century as the US Patent Office Building, it was actually one of the few structures on Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the city, although he had envisioned a Pantheon and not a clerical building. The structure is unusually striking given its utilitarian purpose and that’s thanks entirely to a quirk of early US patent law. The law, which has since been changed, required inventors to also submit scale models of their patent concepts, which required a lot of room to store. That’s why today we enjoy the museum-like quality of the building since it was always designed to showcase works of some sort.

That’s where the old-fashioned elements of visiting these two Smithsonian Institution museums ends though because, as I discovered, they’re two of the best curated and forward-thinking museums I’ve had the pleasure to visit.

Visual History of America

The two museums call the same complex home, but there are stark differences between the two as I learned on my 3-hour walk around them with the Context art historian. Personally, I was drawn more to the National Portrait Gallery and as it turns out, there’s a reason for that. The mission of the National Portrait Gallery is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shaped the nation’s history, development and culture. Although that story is mostly told through art, I think the National Portrait Gallery is better classified a history museum. The collection is maintained by experts in American history and not art historians and that point of view is seen throughout the museum. In most art museums the focus is on the artist, but that’s not the case at the NPG. No, here the focus is on the story, which can be told through amazing works of art or ones that, while not as good, are important pieces of the historical puzzle. Beginning even before the founding of the country, the gallery takes visitors on an immersive walk through that history, both political and cultural, from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Clemens and beyond. It’s a different way to share the story of the country, one that is obviously visual but also engaging.

The American Art Museum diverges from that philosophy, instead experts there seek to collect, understand and share the enjoyment of American art. It’s all encompassing and holds one of the world’s largest and most inclusive collections of American art from the colonial period to the present. This is a more traditional art museum, although the collection is admittedly eclectic. It’s a daunting challenge really to showcase not only the best works of art from our shared history, but to also show how diverse that art has been over the years. Everything from traditional 18th century portraiture to massive modern art installations somehow all come together in a cohesive and yes, entertaining way. But I would never have enjoyed either of these two museums without the help of a true expert to guide me through the exhibitions.

Value of Guides in Museums

Every year I look back and take stock of what I experienced and learned, mostly based on my travel experiences. This was another year of personal growth and one of the more interesting travel-related revelations was finally understanding the great value in experiencing museums with local experts. I have long understood the value of walking tours in cities, either to become acquainted with a new destination or to learn more about cities I already love. Their level of expertise can’t be overstated, but I never realized the same held true for museums. In general, I consider myself intelligent enough to be able to walk around a museum, read the provided information and placards and emerge on the other side knowing a little bit more than when I started. What I didn’t understand until a few months ago was the context that a great guide can provide, transforming the entire experience. For me, there’s no better place to see that incredible added value than in an art museum.

I started this post out by admitting I’m not the biggest patron of the visual arts. They’re just not my thing, or at least I used to think that. Part of the problem I believe is that I never had the background on the many pieces of art I was admiring, I didn’t appreciate the subtext or even the skill required to create them. Enter experts like my Context docent, Abram. A trained professional, he holds a Ph.D. in art history and if anyone could help me learn to appreciate both the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, it was him. Tackling the museums in the methodical way in which they’re meant to be enjoyed, rather than explain every single work of art, he instead selected the standout pieces, art that tells the story not only of the country, but the museum itself. He went into greater detail when he saw my piqued interest, and together we wandered the massive complex, learning more about art and history along the way. He was engaging, he was smart and the entire experience was fun. These are not words I normally associate with art museums, which is why I think I left the tour so happy with the experience. There’s nothing like having experts ply their trade, share with others what makes them excited and everyone learning something along the way. Had I attempted a National Portrait Gallery tour on my own, I wouldn’t have stayed very long, certainly not the 3-hours that the tour spanned, and I would never have appreciated what I experienced. Based on this, as well as other museum tours this year, I’m more than convinced that some museums aren’t just more enjoyable with the help of a guide, they’re necessary if you truly want to learn and enjoy the experience.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

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