Archives on View: National Portrait Gallery’s 50th Anniversary Exhibition

We take a look at the National Portrait Gallery's 50th Anniversary Exhibition through the documents of a previous exhibition, This New Man.


Diagonal view of building in classical Greek style.

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018. Ahead of next year’s festivities, NPG unveiled an exhibition commemorating its May 1968 opening. The Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) provided several pieces for this gallery, including a photo of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dedication speech on May 3rd. Check out the full exhibition, and a scale model of the building before the installation of the Kogod Courtyard’s renowned glass ceiling, on NPG’s second floor.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives collects, preserves, and shares the history of the Smithsonian as part of its mission. In tandem with NPG’s exhibition requests for items related to the May 1968 opening, our Preservation Coordinator Alison has been working with NPG records in a seven-box series titled “National Museum of American Art and Portrait Gallery (U.S.) Library, Records, 1916, 1922, 1929-1930, 1946-1984.” This record unit documents the simultaneous public opening of NPG and the National Collection of Fine Arts (later renamed Smithsonian American Art Museum). I used to work at NPG in their department of exhibitions, so I could not resist a chance to take a peek inside Box 01…

There were correspondences galore, plus media contacts, programs, and newspaper clippings. Several folders of black and white photos show the opening reception – lots of fancy clothes, and for some reason hairstyles that alternated between Jacqueline Kennedy and William H. Macy in Pleasantville. (Men’s hair: 1868 = long, 1968 = short, 2068 = TBD).

But it was in the original exhibition notes that I found a hidden gem. NPG headlined its inauguration with an exhibition titled This New Man, an exploration of the American identity in the New World. As with all exhibitions, the final list of which famous faces go on which walls is a collaborative effort that goes through many drafts. I found an early version of this list complete with cross-outs and handwritten notes (source unknown - possibly Robert G. Steward who was the first NPG curator of paintings and sculpture, but this is pure speculation). Some instantly recognizable names jumped off the page; Robert E. Lee, George Washington Carver, Clara Barton, Benjamin Franklin, etc. But digging deeper, there were three names that caught my eye, each with its own unique story to tell:

Typewritten list on white paper with blue ink annotations.

Dorothea Dix, 1802-1887, bio: Gallery 9, “Liberators and Crusaders”

I come to present the strong claims of suffering humanity. I come to place before the Legislature of Massachusetts the condition of the miserable, the desolate, the outcast. I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane men and women; of beings sunk to a condition from which the unconcerned world would start with real horror. (Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts, 1843)

The above quote is pulled from NPG’s classroom resource page. It describes in its words and in its tone the mission and the resolve of Dorothea Dix, a woman who committed much of her life to improving the treatment of mental illnesses in both the United States and Europe. She pioneered efforts to build new hospitals and to refit existing mental health facilities at a time when medical practice traditionally locked away “insane” individuals in prisons instead of providing care. Her advocacy helped to lay the foundation for modern fields of psychiatry and psychology.

Carrie Nation, 1846-1911, bio: Gallery 16, “Humorists and Hyperbolists”

The Temperance Movement to moderate or prohibit alcohol consumption seemed like ancient history in the United States – until I looked up Prohibition and saw the ban on alcoholic beverages ended only 84 years ago (I need to call my grandfather about this). Carrie Amelia Moore Nation was a key figure in this movement. Her actions may have upset many Temperance supporters. Nation pushed back against alcohol consumption unreservedly, directly, and even aggressively, using vandalism and intimidation when needed. As one curator wrote, “Most famously, Nation stormed into barrooms wielding a hatchet that she used to break bottles and disrupt business. Often arrested and fined, she attracted national attention to the temperance cause.”

Zebulon Pike, 1779-1813, bio: Gallery 17, “The Inquisitive”

Have you ever been to Pike’s Peak? Zebulon Montgomery Pike may have beaten you to it, but he never quite made it to the summit. A military man, Pike led several expeditions to the West, first to the upper Mississippi River. Ordered to find the origin of the mighty waterway, he and 20 men started in Missouri and traveled 2,000 miles before (incorrectly) identifying Leech Lake in Minnesota as the river’s source. On a second expedition beginning 1806, Pike led his men along the Red and Arkansas rivers. He reached Colorado where he fell short of his goal to scale the peak that would eventually bear his name. These setbacks aside, however, Pike’s maps and notes from his expeditions were the first written records of the Louisiana Purchase territory, the famous land acquisition of 1803 during the administration of Thomas Jefferson. Pike's efforts were instrumental in the early identification of what would become the Midwestern United States.

NPG's 50th anniversary exhibition is on view through next year. If you can come downtown D.C., be sure to visit the gallery, meet some new faces, and help celebrate the anniversary of this unique collection.

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