‘Un-Highlights’ of the Western Canon

Taking a sanctioned guerrilla tour of the de Young Museum

Standing next to Man Observing Series II, Viola Frey’s nine foot sculpture of a glowering, Trump-like figure looking downward with his hands on his hips, our tour guide effuses about the artist.

“I could talk about the lady who made this piece of art for two hours,” Casey says. “But I’m going to limit myself to two minutes.”

She launches into a quick discussion of Frey’s history in the Bay Area, her desire to move from utilitarian ceramics to plus-size pieces that would linger in the mind, and about the psychology of power positions. It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and my boyfriend and I are at the de Young Museum, on a guerrilla tour of sorts called Museum Hack. It’s a busy evening. Just as the tour was about to start, drag queen VivvyAnne ForeverMORE and her co-host Downey introduced the contestants in the annual Tiara Sensation pageant, so while we’re waiting for the other two people on the tour to arrive — they never do — we get a cocktail, watching Honey Mahogany and Martha T. Lipton (The Failed Actress) judge the competitors while Black Benatar lip-synched to the national anthem.

It feels slyly illicit, but Museum Hack is sanctioned. While independent of the de Young, it’s not as if we’re combing through the galleries without permission. (Initially, I hadn’t realized this, and after meeting at the designated rendezvous point under the stairs, I half-expected a shady figure in a trench coat to whisper my name from behind, then show us the secret passageway to the catacombs.) But it’s probably better that things are above-board, and Casey is a fount of enthusiastic information. She’s also the first of the group’s tour guides in San Francisco, with a tendency to make a game out of everything.

“Everybody who does my job does this differently,” she says. “What we do at Museum Hack is ‘un-highlights.’ If you came to the de Young during the day, you maybe take a docent tour and learn about art history. Not that we don’t value that or respect it, but we want to offer an alternative approach. What I and my colleagues have done is come to this museum and fucking nerded it out — if Great Masters’ brushstrokes aren’t your thing.”

Unlike most guided tours, where you can shuffle along in silence as part of the flock, with Museum Hack, a little active participation is mandatory. This could be because there’s only three of us including her, but I don’t doubt Casey’s fervor could enliven a group of 30. (We begin the tour with a cheer of “Muuuuuuu-SEUM!” and she playfully chides me for failing to maintain a properly Trumpian posture as she talks about Viola Frey.)

We move through various galleries, depending on our interest level in certain areas of the museum’s collection. Casey talks about the Hatfield-McCoy rivalry between the de Young and Spreckels families, and the 300,000-strong collection of European bric-a-brac that Michael H. de Young accumulated during his tenure as the founding editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. A 214-piece silver set includes ice cream forks with individualized handle designs, as well as pickle spoons of various sizes. Then it’s on to a vitrine that contains both a Tiffany-made, diamond-encrusted sword and a silver ewer; Casey talks at length about the latter, as it was given to the winner in a knife fight between Gold Rush-era California politicians by a group of patriotic ladies.

This emphasis on un-highlights even at the expense of eye-catching baubles allows for a lot more playfulness and helps differentiate things from a standard tour, and it’s a pub quiz champion’s dream job.

“My journey in Museum Hack,” Casey says, “is to find things and learn how they got there.”

She encourages us to find our spirit animal in any one painting in a set of three rooms devoted to 19th-century American art. (I pick Thomas Eakins’ 1878 The Courtship, although I can’t decide if I’m the hard-working girl at the spinning wheel or the indolent boy trying to catch her attention.) Then she requests that we photograph a small, easily overlooked detail from any one work in the museum and ready an explanation for why we think it’s significant.

At this point, I’m hooked. We’re in the room devoted to the Hudson River School, the magnificently kitschy fake landscapes that make the Catskill Mountains look like Gondor from Lord of the Rings. Casey elaborates on how the arrangement of paintings on the walls charts the transportation revolution that characterized the mid-19th century, from oxen to steamships to railroads. We discuss the various ailments that one can die from in the early-’90s computer game Oregon Trail — diphtheria is what always got me — and everyone agrees that Edwin Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics has pride of place for a good reason. With its double rainbow over a landscape that looks like half-Oahu, half-Matterhorn, it’s a gaudy treasure, and it dominates the room.

One group selfie later, it’s on to the South Pacific, where we’re tasked with picking something we’d happily stuff into a bag if it weren’t under glass. The masks and other adornments crafted by indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea don’t demonstrate many hangups with the body, so I pick a ceremonial object that looks like it has a vagina for a face and a penis for a nose. Without much context, it’s hard to tell what it was for: finding a mate, protecting a pregnant woman, or warding off the spirits of impotence, but it’s pretty rad. My boyfriend picks a weathered work board, carved in the shape of a face, with eyes like mother-of-pearl.

Tiara Sensation is audibly winding down, and we have time for one last stop before retrieving our coats: Kane Kwei’s bespoke caskets. In keeping with the Ghanaian belief that you must do right by your elders so that their ghosts don’t haunt you, the contemporary artist fashions personalized coffins modeled on what the deceased loved most. (The one exhibited at the de Young is in the shape of a cacao pod, and looks vaguely like something an alien larva might pupate inside of before eating everyone in San Francisco.)

Of everything we saw all night, the detail that most caught my eye was a trio of figures in the lower-right side of Rainy Season in the Tropics. Two men lead a donkey, although they appear to be dragging the animal through the mud in different directions. Comparing phones, it turns out that Casey and I had the exact same idea. To me, that’s a tie, and we’re going to need to thumb-wrestle for it or maybe try to drive each other off the road in a game of chicken, but she crowns me the winner.

My prize is a Polaroid-like print of the selfie we all took in front of that same painting, half an hour earlier. It ends up on our fridge, under a magnet from the Keith Haring exhibit we saw at the de Young a few years before.

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