Lesser-Known Stories & Secrets Behind Five Museums Around the DC Area

What stories lie within these museum walls?

[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” ]


With the winter season upon us, perhaps there’s no better time to stay indoors and explore DC’s extensive museum scene. While many locals and tourists may be familiar with these historical and art havens, the bizarre and lesser-known stories behind them are likely not as widely as known.

With the ever-changing restrictions and challenges currently facing the city, it’s a good idea to visit each of these museum’s websites for updates regarding operating hours and admission requirements. Except for the Phillips Collection, all featured museums are free and just begging to be explored.

Check out local DC author JoAnn Hill’s book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to discover even more hidden histories and peculiarities in and around the DC area!


National Gallery of Art: “Finally, On the Mark”

Markers of a presidential assassination

The next time you find yourself satisfying your love of art and getting your fix of Picasso and Monet paintings, take some time to locate the two markers that denote the site of President James Garfield’s unusual assassination. The markers are situated near the south entrance of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, which is where the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station previously stood.

On July 2, 1881, the United States’ 20th president, who had only served as president for four months, was shot by lawyer Charles J. Guiteau, a resentful and unstable man seeking to gain political power, notoriety, and revenge. Guiteau had stalked Garfield for several months prior to that night. After delivering a few small local speeches supporting Garfield during the election, Guiteau believed that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory. He began sending Garfield letters and eventually moved from Chicago to Washington. He made demands of the president, including for a post in Paris even though he had no prior experience and did not speak French. Angered and fueled by Garfield’s dismissal and rejection, Guiteau set out to shoot Garfield at the present-day site of the National Gallery of Art.

Read All About It: Dive deeper into this odd story surrounding the assassination of President Garfield on pages 42-43 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The National Gallery of Art is is open daily, 10am – 5pm. Admission is free.

Where: The National Gallery of Art is located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets along Constitutional Avenue NW.

See More:  Read about the museum’s East side in this KFDC post.


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Smithsonian American Art Museum: “One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Masterpiece”

Magnificent “trashy” art on display

As the adage goes: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. James Hampton, Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity, took that timeless sentiment to heart, proving that many everyday discarded items can be converted into stunning objects of art.

After receiving religious visions, Hampton devoted over 14 years of his life to constructing a monument to God, eventually known around the world as The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, which is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.

In 1950, Hampton undertook this elaborate project in hopes of preparing for Christ’s return to earth. He created his grand showpiece in a rented carriage house, transforming its dull interior into a magnificent workspace. He assembled coffee cans, jelly jars, flower vases, lightbulbs, metal, scrap wood, plastic, and tinfoil into something magical. He also incorporated old furniture and various office supplies into the brilliant structure. The Throne is comprised of two levels. A cushioned throne in the back is a central point for the extremely symmetrical array. Objects on the right represent the New Testament and Jesus; those on the left portray the Old Testament and Moses.

Read All About It: Read more about James Hampton’s masterpiece on pages 12-13 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore:  The museum is currently open Sunday – Wednesday, 11:30am – 7pm.  Admission is free.

Where: The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located at 8th and F Streets NW.

See More: Read about and get a glimpse of the museum in this KFDC post and this one.


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Phillips Collection: “Sorry for Stealing, But Please Tighten Your Security”

Inside The Phillips Collection

Mention the words “art heist” and there’s a good chance that a slew of action-packed movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and Entrapment conjure up to mind. Well, it turns out that art museum thefts aren’t exclusive to Hollywood films; sometimes they occur right in your neighborhood, sometimes the stolen masterpieces turn up in unexpected places, and sometimes the thefts are executed to teach the museum a lesson.

Located in DC’s prestigious Dupont Circle neighborhood, the Phillips Collection is home to more than 5,000 pieces in styles ranging from French impressionism and American modernism to contemporary art. The collection includes works by an array of renowned artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso. It is regarded as the nation’s oldest modern art museum.

In January 1983, the typically quiet museum was anything but; instead, it became the center of an art heist, bustling with commotion and confusion. A museum guard became suspicious when he noticed a man leaving the museum with his arms wrapped around a bunched-up tweed coat. It didn’t take long for the museum to realize that the man, accompanied by a female companion, had stolen “Virgin Alsace,” a 1920 statue by Antoine Bourdelle valued at $35,000.

Read All About It: Learn more about this unusual art heist on pages 46-47 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 6pm. Admission is $16/adult, $12/senior, $10/student, free/age 18 & under. Special promo: Tickets are pay-what-you-wish for the first entry time of each hour, available first come, first serve via online reservation.

Where: The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st Street NW.

See More: Read about KFDC experiences at the Phillips in this post and this one.


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Smithsonian National Postal Museum: “The Dog Days of the US Postal Museum”

Owney with RMS clerks (photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

In 1888, a scruffy mutt was abandoned by a postal clerk in an Albany, New York, post office. Postal workers wrapped him in postal bags to keep him warm, and so began the launch of Owney’s path toward becoming the unofficial mascot of the US Postal System. The dog is so beloved by US Postal System that he landed a prominent spot in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Described as a dog who was attracted to the texture and scents of mail bags, Owney soon began following mailbags everywhere. Over the next decade, he travelled by train and accompanied mail clerks around the world, traveling a staggering 140,000 miles. He soon became a good luck charm to the mail clerks who travelled with him. At a time when train accidents were common, no train that Owney had traveled on was ever in an accident. To commemorate Owney’s extensive travels, he was adorned with medals and tags labelled with city names. When Owney would return to Albany, the clerks there would save the tags. When Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a fan of Owney’s, discovered that Owney’s collar was weighed down by the accumulating tags, he gave Owney a vest where postal workers could pin his extensive tag collection.

Read All About It: Read more about Owney and how he became postal royalty on pages 76-77 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Saturday – Tuesday, 10am – 5:30pm.  Admission is free.

Where: The National Postal Museum is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE.

See More: Read about and get a glimpse of the museum in this KFDC post and this one.


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National Museum of Health and Medicine: “Calling All Stomachs of Steel”

An “inside” look at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Washington, DC, is host to an incredible wealth of museums, housing everything from national treasures, famous paintings, and historical artifacts. While museums belonging to the world- renowned Smithsonian conglomerate often receive the most acclaim and visitors, there are a plethora of smaller and lesser-known museums also deserving of attention and time. The fascinating and quirky National Museum of Health and Medicine is undoubtedly one of them.

Founded at the start of the Civil War, the museum was created to further the research of military field surgery. Surgeon General William Hammond commanded Union doctors on the battlefield to send him “specimens of morbid anatomy…together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed.” The Army Medical Museum (the museum’s original name) was led by doctors, and it quickly acquired a bevy of gruesome artifacts for the staff to examine on their way to the front. While the museum is no longer run by medical doctors, exhibits depicting the history of military medicine continue to be a mainstay. These exhibits, along with several medical specimens, continue to attract visitors each year. So, what are some of the grisly items on display? A few of the main attractions include a conjoined twin specimen preserved in alcohol and a human hairball that was removed from a 12-year-old girl who compulsively ate her hair for six years.

Read All About It: Read more about this museum dedicated to the history of military medicine and medical oddities on pages 78-79 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.

Go and Explore: The museum is currently open Wednesday – Sunday, 10am – 5:30pm. Admission is free.

Where: The National Museum of Health and Science is located on 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, MD.

See More: Read about a past KFDC experience at the museum.


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JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog dcglobejotters.org. Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is her first book.


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