This weekend in March, I had four good friends from college in town at once, so we planned a museum day in DC. As you may remember from my trips to the National Zoo, the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and the National Building Museum, having friends in town pushes me to actually visit DC museums. My friends who are more serious about art (i.e. at a museum they want to learn the context and history of a piece, not assess whether anyone in that piece is making a hilarious face they could imitate, which is what I am doing) wanted to see the Freer Sackler galleries of Asian art. Afterwards, we made an impromptu trip to the National Portrait Gallery.
My friends from out of town stayed with me, and we started the day with breakfast at Northside Social in Falls Church. Over avocado toast and lattes we talked about our families and roommates and jobs and tried to plan our reunion this summer. The day was super bright but freezing, so we went back to my apartment to put on extra layers before we left for DC. I wore a white t-shirt, jeans, and Adidas Originals, and then I layered on a denim jacket (double denim!) and a pink statement coat for warmth.
We took the metro into DC and walked to the Freer Sackler, which my most artsy friend had suggested because of their exhibit on American art from the Gilded Age, including some gorgeous Whistler paintings. The Freer Sackler is technically two museums, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, both dedicated to Asian art. The museum building was understated—no cathedral ceilings or sweeping staircases—and filled with natural light. The center of the museums was a courtyard garden, which we looked at from indoors since our fingers were still frozen together from the walk to the museum.
We started with the American art, which was lovely—the paintings were simple, but I felt like I would never get tired of looking at them. Then, we saw the Peacock Room, which was over-the-top extravagant, like something out of a Nancy Drew haunted mansion. Originally it was Charles Freer’s dining room at his home in Detroit, where he would show off his finds from his latest trip to Asia (like vacation photos, but infinitely more breakable). The walls, complete with a built-in fireplace, shelves, and dressers, were painted blue and gilded with elaborate gold peacocks. Usually the museum displays ceramics on the shelves, but it was empty when we went, so we could see the bones of the room.
The rest of the museum was organized by country—we saw beautiful painted scrolls from Japan, engraved silver plates from Iran, and a ton of Buddha statues from India. The statuary was the best, especially the intricately carved and painted Chinese statues. Once we got to the pottery section, though, about half of us were interested in the ceramics and half of us were much more interested in lunch (I will not say which contingent I was with, to maintain my dignity and avoid angering Freer and Sackler’s ghosts). We saw one more exhibit and then decided to find somewhere to eat.
We walked over to Busboys and Poets for a late lunch, since they have lots of vegan and vegetarian options, even vegan tuna made out of chickpeas (which I realize is only exciting to me). By the time we walked to the restaurant and got our food it was almost four, so we started looking at other museums but quickly narrowed down our choices to museums that were still open. We decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery, which I haven’t visited in years.
We walked over to the National Portrait Gallery and made a beeline for the art conservation lab, which is glassed-in so the public can learn about the art conservation process. Since it was Saturday, none of the conservators were at work, but one of my friends who works in art conservation explained what they were working on based on the art and tools we could see. Then, we looked at the shelves of art near the conservation lab, which is like a library of portraits, and ambled through a few of the galleries, finishing in the presidential hall.
After we saw President Obama’s portrait, we headed back to the metro. I liked seeing the Freer Sackler, which I wouldn’t have visited on my own, and it was even more fun with friends. I’m thinking about going back to see the blue and white pottery display in the Peacock Room! The behind-the-scenes look at the art conservation lab at the National Portrait Gallery was interesting too.
What are your favorite art museums in DC? Let me know in the comments!