A few thoughts on a few museums

I used to be a museum professional. It’s funny, because I’m not the “museum person” in my department and since it’s not my field of research, most students have no idea I used to work in museums for a living.

While I’m retired from being a museum professional, I’m still very much a museum aficionado. In the last two months, I’ve gotten to visit five museums in two cities, and thought I’d say a bit about them.


My visit to the Met felt like an Epic Quest from start to finish. Our fellowship consisted of two couples, an elderly woman, a preteen, and two preschoolers. It was pouring rain. I mean a veritable freezing deluge. And it was the day before New Year’s Eve. The line for security looked like the line in front of a rollercoaster on Independence Day. Except freezing cold and pouring rain. After an hour of waiting, we finally got inside. Was it worth it? HECK YES IT WAS.

What this pic doesn’t convey was the wet dog smell inevitable after getting in from the rain.

Our visit focused on two exhibits in particular: one on jousting armor and one on renaissance robots and inventions. That second one, in particular, was incredible. Even the Washington Post agrees. Plus, it included great object lessons for the kids.

Renaissance odometer. Blingy!

Actual convo:
Me, in front of renaissance odometer: Wow! Look at this gorgeous machinery.
Preteen: what is that?
Me: [explains how odometers work]
Preteen: ugh. Why didn’t they just use google maps?

We also just walked around the museum and saw all sorts of other great art, because the Met is The Best. And yes, I say this as a native Parisian. The Louvre is no doubt an incredible experience, but I don’t love it as a museum. Biggest is not best in this regard. It’s just exhausting. Also, pro tip: if you’re in a wheelchair, skip the Louvre and go to Orsay and Pompidou. You can thank me later, after you’ve avoided countless lifts to get you up and down 10 step staircases.

Tl;dr: get thee to the Met.

The VMFA is a tiny (but bigger than expected) gem.

Josh Mallow UMW HISP ‘13. Now an urban planner. 😁

I’ve been to the VMFA plenty of times, but this visit was time-sensitive: I really really wanted to see the Hopper exhibit. So, real quick: the rest of the museum is also wonderful (and free!) and the grounds are particularly pleasant. Fun fact: I ran into an alum walking around, because UMW HISP is the #bestdept with the #bestalums

I’m partial to the permanent collection of decorative arts, especially the Tiffany glass. But the Fabergé eggs are pretty neat too. And the museum now has Kahinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, which my entire family loved, and led to a good convo about Civil War sculptures. (<- extra preservation-y)

The Hopper exhibit was worth the cost (plus, my 4 yo was free and so was I. A perk of being a state employee.) I love Hopper’s work, and introducing it to my kids was a particular treat. This exhibit has been all around the world, and emphasizes that the VMFA, while not the MET, is not to be scoffed at either. It’s not every day I can make my very Parisian dad and stepmom jealous. This did it.

While my preschooler didn’t really get the nuances of Hopper’s work, my preteen sure did. A mock hotel lobby, and a diorama of a hotel room, in particular, both really connected with her. The sketches leading to final canvasses were also part of the exhibit and highlighted the artistic process. Even better – for me, at least – a plethora of postcards and diary entries, primarily from Hopper’s wife, gave more context to the art.

My preteen was almost as entranced as I was, and totally got the “sad white people” (sub)text of Hopper’s work. Then we walked the museum grounds and went to Cary Street for lunch. An excellent day all around.


This photo centered museum is in a gorgeous building, and takes full advantage of it. The layout of the museum is effective: you take an elevator to the top and then walk down (or take a lift back down if you prefer.) Problem with that museum wasn’t the museum itself but the exhibits on display. I was not at all impressed. The exhibits were varied but all of them were mediocre. Many were prurient, as well. Plus, the museum was expensive. I will not be returning. I love photography, and when exhibited well, it is wonderful, but this just felt like a pseudo-intellectual money-grubbing enterprise.

While I didn’t love the exhibits, the building itself is a gorgeous NYC Landmark. One reason to maybe pay to see the museum: the attic space is open to visitors, and shows the structure of the roof beautifully.

The NYC TRANSIT MUSEUM is magical.

I realize I’m super ultra biased but oh my goodness I LOOOOOOOOVE this museum. Seeing dozens of real subway cars from various eras, complete with ads, is a transporting experience. (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.) You can sit in or stand and hang onto a strap and feel like you’re in the 20s or 50s or 70s, one after the other. The museum also has busses and turnstiles from different eras and maps! OMG the maps. All map nerds know about Vignelli. Here you can see all sorts of different ideas for maps over the years and their implementation, including the colors for different lines, the typography, all of it. You can’t see the heart eyes I’m making just thinking about it, but believe me: 😍😍😍

Even my kids, preschooler included, loved this place. There’s so much interactive stuff in the museum that you don’t have to be a train nerd to fall in love. Did I mention it’s in a real decommissioned station? I coulda stayed there for ten times longer, honestly. Only downside: I didn’t see any ad for Dr. Zizmor.

My thoughts exactly: the transit museum is FLANTASTICO

I’m very thankful the museum store isn’t too big, or I would have left my life savings there. As it is, I plan on coming back to this museum pretty much every time I find myself in downtown Brooklyn, which is surprisingly often. Bonus: the museum is walking distance from Junior’s. Have an egg cream and cheesecake before/after and you’ll feel happy all day.

The BRANCH brings a little #UMWHISP to RVA.

I can’t really speak to the Branch’s permanent collection. I went to see an exhibit about Charles M. Robinson, which was curated by #umwhisp student Brenden Bowman. The exhibit made great use of the space, and displayed drawings and photos of many of Robinson’s projects over his long career.

I already knew about Robinson: he designed the first two buildings on UMW’s campus, Monroe and Willard, as well as the location of Virginia Hall. But my knowledge of his body of work pretty much ended there. At the Branch exhibit, I learned much more about him and his illustrious career. Not only did he focus on educational buildings, but he was an innovator, designing multiple versions of “open air” classrooms (to alleviate the symptoms of tuberculosis), ventilated wardrobes (to dry wet jackets), ramps between classrooms (for better traffic flow), etc.

The exhibit has come down since my visit, but I’m the proud owner of the exhibit booklet. Stop by and take a look!

The Branch itself is a gorgeous, Tudor Revival, fancy schmancy mansion in the fan, and is undoubtedly going to be the destination of a future visit. And, as tends to happen when I visit cultural destinations in RVA, I ran into another #UMWHISP alum, Kiernan Ziletti ‘17.

The Branch Museum.

I wonder who I’ll run into next time…