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If the Museum Bus is not intended to be a guided tour, and it’s not, it’s just convenient transport to museums both major and lesser known throughout Washington, then somebody forgot to tell bus driver Cindy Driver (her real name).
“That’s Robert Emmot. He was a patriot,” she sings out as we cruise past a small statue near Sheridan Circle, between stops at the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Museum. “I know because I got out one day and read the plaque,” she says. “People kept asking me stuff like that, so I thought I’d better be prepared.” Turning a corner, she points out an impressive pile of white stone on our left. “That’s the Turkish Embassy,” she says. “And that little one down the street, that’s the Pakistan one.”
Driver’s self-created highlights tour keeps her passengers entertained as she shuttles them among over 20 museums scattered from Dupont Circle to Chinatown to the Mall. The problem is, however, since the Museum Bus got rolling over the July 4 weekend, she hasn’t had many customers to entertain. One recent Sunday afternoon (it was the weekend of the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary), we rode the bus for two hours and encountered only one other rider. While the Cultural Alliance of Washington, which funds the service, says it is publicizing the Bus to out of towners through hotels, the American Youth Hostel, and museums themselves, another big potential group of users, local Washingtonians, seems pretty much ignorant of the new buses’ existence.
The Museum Bus does have some solid attractions. It hits not only the city’s best known museums and galleries, but also such excellent but less visited sites as the Jewish Historical Society east of Judiciary Square, the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas down the street from the Corcoran, and the Octagon, also near the Corcoran, a wonderful architectural oddity and the oldest Federal-era building in the District.
That itinerary of hidden treasures was appreciated by Chicagoan Tara Salisbury, our sole co-rider last Sunday. “Woodrow Wilson House is great,” she said. “In those days presidents could accept gifts, and it’s just amazing all the stuff Mrs. Wilson saved.” Salisbury pointed out another attraction: the Bus’s price, $5 per passenger ($12 for a family), which pays for unlimited travel any Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. “And for that $5,” she added, “you get free admission to the Phillips, and their fee is $6.50.” Bus riders also get free admission to the Corcoran, which otherwise charges $3.50, and a 10-percent discount at all Smithsonian museum shops.
The Bus has made a convert of at least one area local: Driver, a Prince George’s County resident who says she used to see the District strictly as a place to go to work. “When I first started driving the buses, I’d hear people from other countries saying Washington is a beautiful city, and I’d be like, ‘Huh?’ But now I think so, too,” she says, “and as soon as I have some time off, I’m going to do some museumgoing myself.”