Hillwood Museum: A Docent-in-Training View

In January, I began a six-month effort to become a docent at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens off of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. To do so will require a six-month crash course in French and Russian decorative arts, thousands of pages of reading, weekly three-hour classes, four presentations, and a promise that, once the course is completed, I will serve at Hillwood as a docent a minimum of eight hours a month.

Did I mention that all of this is as a volunteer?

And I'm not the only crazy one. There are 30 of us in class, 30 of 100 people who applied to give away hours and hours of their time in the service of telling the story of businesswoman, heiress, philanthropist, and collector Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Why? Because Hillwood is fabulous. 

A dinner party at Hillwood began in the French Drawing Room, where you enjoyed a cocktail, strolled out to the gardens, and were invited by Marjorie Post to touch, sit in, and enjoy her 18th-century French furniture and art.

A dinner party at Hillwood began in the French Drawing Room, where you enjoyed a cocktail, strolled out to the gardens, and were invited by Marjorie Post to touch, sit in, and enjoy her 18th-century French furniture and art.

Post, who inherited the Postum Cereal Company and evolved it into General Foods, bought Hillwood in 1955 for the express purpose of sharing her astonishing collection of 18th-century French and imperial-era Russian furniture, porcelain, art, and glorious things that sparkle with the public. There, she entertained congressmen who dined on plates made for Catherine the Great, she invited high school students to relax into her 200-year-old French chairs, and she strolled with wounded veterans across her flower-bordered lawn, the Washington Monument easily in view.

Post fed her lucky guests off Russian imperial porcelain plates. The dining room is currently set with the porcelain service created to honor the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I in 1826. I learned that last week.

Post fed her lucky guests off Russian imperial porcelain plates. The dining room is currently set with the porcelain service created to honor the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I in 1826. I learned that last week.

See? Fabulous. At Hillwood, Post enshrined a way of life -- and a generosity of spirit -- that is lost. Her life of decorum and rules -- she always supplied heel caps for the ladies square-dancing on her hardwood floors -- also included square-dancing. That same sense of fun and enjoying yourself is still an essential part of the Hillwood visit: guests can tour the house with a docent or on their own, kids can explore the vast and varied gardens and the pet cemetery, flower lovers can spend hours sniffing the 2,000 orchids in the greenhouse, and ladies who lunch can order a glass of wine at the cafe.

Orchids at the Hillwood Museum

I imagine I'll be mentioning Hillwood a lot here on In Between in D.C.; I've already told everyone I know about the 60-piece jewelry exhibit, Spectacular Gems and Jewelry from the Merriweather Post Collection, that will be opening in June. It'll be opening right about the time that a class of 30 new docents will come on board. 

Come visit. Be kind (we'll be a little nervous). And be careful. Hillwood opens its doors to new docents every 3-5 years. You, too, could catch the devotion to fabulousness.

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exhibitons at the Hillwood Museum

Post and daughter, Nedenia. Nedenia will grow up to become actress Dina Merrill. The emerald brooch by Cartier will be part of the Spectacular exhibit.

Post and daughter, Nedenia. Nedenia will grow up to become actress Dina Merrill. The emerald brooch by Cartier will be part of the Spectacular exhibit.

  • Four Seasons - The gargantuan Philip Haas sculptures interpreting Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s celebrated botanical paintings will be on view in the garden until March 31.
  • Friends and Fashion - Using forty-five portraits from an album of an American diplomat in 1820s Russia, the exhibit explores the people, politics, fashion, and hairstyles of a glamorous St. Petersburg. Displayed in the Dacha, the exhibit will run through June 11.
  • Spectacular Gems and Jewelry - Nearly 60 pieces of jewelry that belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post, some given to and on loan from the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, will be on display from June 10 to January 14, 2018.