News & Politics

Insider’s Guide to Museums: Where to Find…

Where to find Washington's jewels and hidden gems

DOROTHY'S RUBY SLIPPERS. Several pairs were made for Judy Garland to wear as she skipped down the yellow-brick road in The Wizard of Oz. One felt-soled pair–believed to be Garland's choice for dance scenes–was donated anonymously to the National Museum of American History in 1979. The shoes are part of the "Icons of American Culture" exhibition.

"LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY." Pierre Auguste Renoir's rough brush strokes and bright colors in this 1881 painting made it one of the most famous works of the Impressionist movement. It's traveling to Japan, Switzerland, Nashville, and Los Angeles before returning to the Phillips Collection next year.

ELI BENTLEY TALL CLOCK. One of only 28 known to exist, the Bentley rests in the Victorian parlor of the Carroll County Farm Museum. Built around 1780, it is an eight-day clock, wound by a key. A dark walnut-and-mahogany case holds the hand-painted dial and heavy weights.

"MONKEYS GRASPING FOR THE MOON." Chinese artist Xu Bing's sculpture–made for the Sackler Gallery in 2001 and donated by the family of Madame Chiang Kai- shek–is the museum's centerpiece. It hangs from the central atrium skylight, falls through the stairwell, and hovers over a reflecting pool. The dramatic sculpture, based on a Chinese folk tale, is made up of 21 wooden pieces, each spelling "monkey" in one of 12 languages, from Hebrew to Urdu to Braille.

RECTAL SPY KIT. The CIA in the 1960s issued spies ten escape tools–including a miniature saw blade and drill bit. The tools fit in a tube that could be hidden in the rectum in case of capture. See the kit at the International Spy Museum.

"GEORGE WASHINGTON." If there's one painting that says "DC," this might be it. Gilbert Stuart painted 72 replicas of the Athenaeum portrait featuring our first president and later the basis for the visage on the dollar bill. Each has subtle differences. The Corcoran Gallery of Art is one of the rare museums with two, and they are among the best. One hangs on the first floor as part of the "Figuratively Speaking" exhibit. The other is on loan to the National Gallery of Art's "Gilbert Stuart" show through July 31.

TANZANIAN STOOL. Ornate high-back stools often served as ceremonial thrones for the leaders of East African societies. This one at the National Museum of African Art was carved in the form of a female torso. Experts say the stools often were built in his-and-her pairs.

HOLOCAUST PERSONAL EFFECTS. During the Holocaust, Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum invited Jews in the ghettos of German-occupied Poland to put diaries, writings, drawings, and personal effects in three milk cans to be buried beneath the streets of Warsaw. Only two of his cans have been recovered. One is displayed on the third floor of the Holocaust Museum's permanent collection, along with a rotating selection of its contents.

GUTENBERG BIBLE. In the mid-1400s, Johann Gutenberg invented a system of moveable type and printed about 180 copies of the Bible. On display in the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building is one of three perfect copies in the world.

ENOLA GAY. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb, destroying Hiroshima and effectively ending World War II. The plane, with a 141-foot wingspan and 99-foot length, could carry a one-ton bomb at 400 miles an hour for at least 5,000 miles. Its restoration for the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center was the largest ever done by the museum, taking nearly ten years to complete.

"BOUQUET OF ZINNIAS." Van Gogh painted this in 1886 during his first months in Paris–a time when he couldn't afford to pay models. It hangs in the Kreeger Museum's Great Hall. The Zinnias postcard is the museum's top seller.

"THE MIGRATION SERIES." Harlem artist Jacob Lawrence created his vibrant series–60 tempera paintings showing the early 20th-century movement of African-Americans from the South to the industrial North–when he was just 23. Done in the 1940s, it launched him into the canon of modern masters. Years later, the series was split in half when collector Duncan Phillips bought the odd-numbered panels–the even-numbered paintings are at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The Phillips Collection keeps only some of the panels on view at a time. This year you can see panels depicting scenes such as blacks voting in the North and the hardship resulting from high food prices during World War I.

FIRST COLLECTED EDITION OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S WORK. In November 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, the First Folio containing 36 of his plays was published. It is the earliest source for 18 plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and As You Like It. In the Folger Library's Great Hall, the First Folio is kept open to its title page, which shows an engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout and a verse written by playwright and friend Ben Jonson.

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, THE CONSTITUTION, AND THE BILL OF RIGHTS. Our country's most important documents are kept under armed guard in the Rotunda of the National Archives. The Constitution is displayed in the center of a bulletproof case flanked by the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

"HARMONY IN BLUE AND GOLD: THE PEACOCK ROOM." The Freer Gallery is best known for Asian art, but its namesake collector, Charles Lang Freer, also had an interest in American pieces, especially those of James McNeill Whistler. The Freer has the world's biggest collection of Whistler's works, and many of the 1,300 pieces are influenced by the art of China and Japan. Its crown jewel is the Peacock Room, a London dining room Whistler painted for a wealthy patron in the late 1800s. The room, which was dismantled and reassembled here in 1919, is named for the floor-to-ceiling paintings of sweeping peacocks in shades of gold and Prussian blue.

CHILDREN'S CHAPEL AND WEST ROSE WINDOW. Tucked away from the Gothic splendor of the National Cathedral is the little-known Children's chapel. Everything from the baptismal font to the organ is built to the scale of a six-year-old. Chairs are covered with needlepoints of baby animals, and the altar bears scenes of Noah's Ark. In the garden outside the 20-by-20-foot chapel, there's a miniature statue of Jesus–its outstretched hands rubbed down by the touch of so many children. The chapel is located just beyond the War Memorial Chapel.

The Cathedral's West Row Window, a circular stained-glass masterpiece designed by Rowan LeCompte, stretches 25 feet in diameter. There are 60 shades of blue in the 10,500 shards of clear and colored glass, which depicts scenes from the Creation inside a ten-petal rose.

THE PARLOR AT GUNSTON HALL. One of the most most beautiful rooms in George Mason's 18th-century Virginia estate, Gunston Hall, is the front parlor, painted a striking yellow and lined with pagoda-inspired moldings. It features the only known example in Colonial America of chinoiserie, a Chinese style of painting popular in England.

"GINEVRA DE'BENCI." This is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere. An oil portrait of the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker, it was done by da Vinci when he was 22. The National Gallery of Art bought the painting from Prince Franz Josef of Liechtenstein in 1967 for $5 million–at the time a record sale for a piece of art.

"CONSTRUCTIVIST COMPOSITION, 1943." The late Nelson Rockefeller, an arts patron, donated this painting, by South American modern master Joaquin Torres-Garcia, to the Art Museum of the Americas. Torres-Garcia lived in Paris and worked alongside Piet Mondrian, and his composition reflects the Neo-Plasticist's influence but is flooded with mathematical symbols and shapes often seen in pre-Columbian art.

FABERGé EGG AND NUPTIAL CROWN. The star of Hillwood Museum's collection of Fabergé eggs is the Twelve Monogram Easter Egg. An Easter gift from Russian emperor Nicholas II to his mother, Maria Fedorvna, in 1895, it has a dark-blue enamel and is divided into panels by rows of diamonds.

Also at Hillwood is the diamond-studded Nuptial Crown worn by empress Alexandra at her wedding to Nicholas II in 1894. The crown became part of the imperial wedding regalia and has since been worn by at least four grand duchesses.

POPE-LEIGHEY HOUSE. Woodlawn Plantation is home to one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's first attempts to create well-designed affordable housing. At the request of Loren Pope, a Washington Evening Star copyeditor who owned a wooded lot in Falls Church, Wright in the late 1930s designed a 1,200-square-foot home made primarily of wood, brick, concrete, and glass. Construction cost: $7,000. In 1965, when plans for I-66 threatened the house, its second owner, Marjorie Leighey, arranged to have it moved to Woodlawn and rebuilt.

PHOTOGRAPHS OF MIDDLE-CLASS AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN THE 1950S AND 1960S. The Banneker-Douglass Museum is home to more than 3,000 photos by Thomas Baden capturing black life at Annapolis churches, schools, beaches, and social clubs during the civil-rights movement. A changing selection of photographs is displayed.

THE BOMBE AND THE ENIGMA. Hitler's military used the Enigma, a typewriterlike device, to encrypt messages with what it thought was an unbreakable code. The Allies spent years trying to penetrate the secrecy and came up with the Bombe–a mainframe-size computer so named, according to lore, because it made a ticking noise. Historians believe messages intercepted by Bombe machines shortened World War II by several years. Both devices are at Fort Meade's National Cryptologic Museum.

WALL DRAWINGS. Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt is known for art done directly on walls. The Hirshhorn is home to two of his four ceiling-to-wall paintings: "Wall Drawing #1113," a multicolored triangle painted within a rectangle, and "Wall Drawing #356 BB," a black-and-white cube that appears three-dimensional. Both are in the Lerner Room.

SKETCH OF CAPITOL DOME. With the growing Congress feeling squeezed in its quarters, an expansion of the Capitol was begun in 1850. The original dome, proportionally too small for the new building, was removed in 1856, and construction started on a cast-iron dome designed by architect Thomas Walker. Work was suspended briefly during the Civil War and completed in 1868. The National Building Museum is home to Walker's sketch "Section Through Dome of US Capitol," which incorporates Constantino Brumidi's fresco "The Apotheosis of Washington" that would cover the interior of the dome.

GIANT HAIRBALL. Among the most popular objects at the National Museum of Health and Medicine is a bread-loaf-size hairball that had to be surgically removed from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl. From the age of six the girl suffered from trichophagia, an emotional disorder that leads victims to eat their hair.

"SELF-PORTRAIT DEDICATED TO LEON TROTSKY." Trotsky, the famous Bolshevik revolutionary exiled from Russia in 1929 by Stalin, eventually found asylum in Mexico, where he lived for some time in the home of artist Frida Kahlo. The two had a brief affair, and she gave him this painting, which hangs in the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

HOPE DIAMOND. Since 1958 the 451/2-carat stone–the world's largest deep-blue diamond–has called the Museum of Natural History home. Once owned by the royal family of France–including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette–it is set in a pendant of 16 white diamonds and attached to a chain with 45 diamonds.

WALL OF GOLD. Since the National Museum of the American Indian opened last summer, the more than 400 solid-gold artifacts hung here have been popular. Objects–including human and animal-shaped figurines, European swords, coins, and crosses–date as far back as 1491.

THE BENJAMIN STODDERT CHILDREN. Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert's brood includes one of the first-known painted views of Georgetown. Docks for tobacco inspection and what is now Roosevelt Island lie in the distance. The painting hangs in the dining room of Dumbarton House.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.