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Every night at venues across the District, security personnel screen incoming visitors for all sorts of harmful things: knives, guns, chemical and biological weapons, to name a few.
But the doormen who stopped D.C. residents Mike Kleinfeld and Sonya Hebert outside the old Carnegie Library on Oct. 9 were searching for a different kind of contraband. “They checked her pocketbook for gum,” says Kleinfeld.
The couple wasn’t seeking entrance to just any local attraction: This was the hallowed City Museum of Washington, D.C. “I think you probably have to be on the detail of scraping up chewing gum to understand why we need to not have any,” says Leslie Shapiro, co-chair of the museum’s board of directors.
Neither Kleinfeld, 27, nor Hebert, 28, had ever been to the City Museum before. But once they cleared security gum-free, the couple instantly became part of something the museum very much needs: an honest-to-goodness gathering of people.
Yes, for once, the notoriously underpopulated City Museum actually looked crowded. By 11:20 p.m., at least 100 people had converged in the museum’s beaux-arts Great Hall—truly a feat for a venue that often sees fewer visitors throughout the course of an entire day, much less all at once.
Then again, these folks hadn’t come to learn about Pierre L’Enfant’s “grande veezion” of the District, as the museum puts it. They weren’t interested in outdated maps or backlit aerial photos or collages of local artifacts, either. And who cared about a stupid ticket to Walter Johnson’s first Senators game, anyway?
No, these museumgoers had come to get their groove on. And their drink on.
After all, this new weekly party called Muse—promoted by Air nightclub honchos Howard Kitrosser and Al Flower and sponsored by liquor brands Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Jose Cuervo—“is where music, dance, and history unite,” according to its Web site.
Well, minus the history part. Despite the setting, the party was largely blocked off from the museum’s exhibits. About the closest thing that Muse patrons got to actual history were the names of ancient heavy thinkers such as Homer, Plato, and Galileo etched into the ceiling high above their heads. That, and the flickering images of director Ridley Scott’s cinematic ode to Roman times, Gladiator, screened on the wall of the Great Hall. Sooo 2000.
When the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden threw a similar party back in February, a daylong bash that featured bands as well as the artwork of contemporary Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, the main attraction was Gordon’s own overlong cinematic spectacle, 24 Hour Psycho. And nearly 8,000 people turned out, compared with the Hirshhorn’s usual daily draw of about 1,300.
But Muse is a different sort of shindig. In fact, history is on the back burner throughout the City Museum. In a statement last week, museum officials announced that they will be shutting down all exhibits next spring in order “to launch a planning process to create a dynamic Museum that truly engages the public in the rich and fascinating history of the city while maintaining the highest level of professionalism in preserving and interpreting its unique past.”
Or, in other words, it’s back to the drawing board for the museum, which the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., opened only 18 months ago as “a place of hometown pride and genuine identity for Washingtonians.”
If only they would show up. Last fall, the City Museum was barely on pace to draw 50,000 attendees in its first year—a far cry from the 300,000 that had been projected (“Local Zeroes,” 10/24/2003). But more recent figures indicate that it failed to meet even that low total: The Washington Post reported last week that the museum netted just 36,536 paying patrons from May 2003 through August 2004.
Attendance woes mean you can forget about retail-shop sales, which museum officials had been banking on. Instead, say hello to rental revenue, which runs upwards of $10,000 to $12,000 for a four-hour private event of up to 100 people. Longer and larger parties, of course, are even more, to cover additional security and staffing costs.
Muse, which debuted Oct. 2, will go on every Saturday clear through October 2005, despite the upcoming halt in exhibitions. “The only weekly event of its kind,” according to promotional materials, “MUSE provides the perfect pleasure palace for hip trendsetters and architects of style looking to break from the mundane club scene.”
OK. But despite the historic setting, Muse isn’t all that different from most D.C. clubs. For starters, admission costs up to $20, though early arrivers and those with enough forethought to sign up via e-mail to the promoters’ guest list can get in for $10. And drinks aren’t cheap, either: $5 for Miller Lite in a 10-ounce plastic cup, $7 for a gin and tonic, and $10 for top-shelf liquors such as Bombay Sapphire.
Oh, and then there’s the music: DJ XTA-C spinning through standard hiphop hits, from the obligatory 50 Cent dance-hall fave “In da Club” to LL Cool J’s hook-up anthem “Doin’ It” to Ludacris’ most mainstream ditty, “Stand Up.” Blaaah!
But the City Museum, unlike many of the usual haunts, notes that “A NO SMOKING policy is in effect at all times.” So clubbers fiending for nicotine must retreat to the steps outside, no ifs, ands, or butts. And unlike D.C.’s most pretentious hot spots, the makeshift club-inside-a-museum is pretty lax when it comes to dress code.
Sure, according to promotional materials: “Stylish attire is a must: no jeans: no athletic wear.” But on Oct. 9, one patron proudly sported his New York Giants cap, and about half the crowd was wearing denim.
Not necessarily the designer kind, either. Eva Davis, for one, had donned jeans from the modestly priced Bulldog label. “I got ’em at Urban Outfitters,” said the 26-year-old Columbia Heights resident. “They’re not really high-end.”—Chris Shott
Price Club: Stretching your dollar at D.C.’s night spots
Venue: DC9, 1940 9th St. NW
Event: 25.4 ounces of Chimay Première
Cost: $17 plus tip
For a bar that rarely charges more than $10 for live music and other performances, $17 for one bottle of beer might seem excessive—extravagant, even. But this isn’t your usual watered-down malt and hops.
No, your average 12-ounce can of bitter domestic suds is mass-produced by some heartless U.S.-based multinational corporation. This 25.4-ounce red-labeled bottle of Chimay Première, on the other hand, is brewed by the honest, cheese-making Trappist monks of Belgium. And, to top it off, it comes corked like une bouteille de vin.
And just like fine wine, the dark-caramel-colored monasterial ale contains more alcohol than most beers: about 7 percent. Sure, you could consume 0.478 ounces more actual alcohol by guzzling four cans of Schlitz—and save yourself $6 in the process. But that’s also 48 ounces of liquid.
Given Chimay’s luxurious price, bartender Mike Dugan readily admits, “We don’t sell a lot.” The brew is actually a few bucks cheaper ($14.95) at D.C.’s renowned underground beer depository the Brickskeller. But at DC9, you’re not sipping these exquisite suds in some dank basement.
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