The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is gem of a museum that offers rare evening hours of operation for the business traveler whose days are filled with appointments. Although you could spend all day in this museum and not see everything, the fact that it stays open until 7 p.m. during the week greatly increases the opportunity for the business traveler to sneak in for an hour or two and enjoy some of the exhibits.

Despite the name “Smithsonian”, you won’t find this museum near the National Mall with the other museums (Air and Space, etc.). This one houses its collections in the Penn Quarter financial district of Washington at the corner of 9th and F Streets. The building was originally known as the United States Patent Office. Its marble façade and presence gives the impression that the State Department or Supreme Court could be found within its soul just beyond its pillars surrounding the entrance.

After a brief renovation, the museum emerged as a fascinating space with an atrium that is a sanctuary from the outdoors. Cool in the summer and cozy in the winter, many Washingtonians can be found here on their lunch breaks with their laptops enjoying the oddly calming vast expanse of an indoor courtyard that strangely clears your mind. If your business travels bring you to the financial district, pop over during a break and have a coffee, or bring colleagues for a discussion.

Permanent Exhibitions
These are some of the exhibits in permanent residence at the museum.They possess a sustainable wonderment year round.

America’s Presidents
The National Portrait Gallery houses the largest collection of official presidential portraits of all of our past presidents and historical figures than any other museum in the country. This exhibit alone can take about two hours to peruse. Each portrait is accompanied by an informative placard describing each president’s life and presidency, so much so that it seems they walk off of the canvas and become people you know. Fun fact: Norman Rockwell painted Richard Nixon’s presidential portrait and he purposely altered his nose a bit to make the portrait more flattering to the President.

Twentieth Century Americans
The museum also houses a vast collection of portraits of famous athletes, entertainers, and other prominent Americans of the twentieth century. Yogi Berra, Elvis Presley, Arthur Ashe, and Raquel Welch are just a few of the portraits and sculptures on permanent display at the museum. All feature wonderful quips about each subject and what made them worthy for museum curators to seize upon their lives in portrait form.

American Origins
The museum’s website best describes this exhibition as “the days of contact between Native Americans and European explorers through the struggles of independence to the Gilded Age”. Portraits include Pocohontas and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Rotating Exhibitions

It has become a tradition on my business travels to Washington DC, if I have the time before my departing flight, to have lunch at the bar of Poste Brasserie across the street from the museum (located in the Hotel Monaco) and then wander the latest rotating exhibits. Visit National Portrait Gallery to learn about the many wonderful exhibits developed by the museum’s curators and what will be available for you to enjoy during your next trip.

Recently, the museum has featured the art work funded and inspired by Franklin Delanor Roosevelt’s New Deal program. During the period of recovery from the Great Depression, President Roosevelt acknowledged that the arts were important for inspiration and contributed to the quality of life to those suffering. The paintings are unbelievable works that grew out of a period of great despair.

Although the museum has the lofty word “portraiture” hanging over its entry, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a stuffy art gallery-like museum. Many of the rotating exhibits are photographic works and mixed media presentations. There is a healthy element of modern media mixed with the absolute historical floors of the traditional oil on canvas portraits. There is something for everybody, even if you just spend a few minutes sitting in the atrium and thinking.

As usual, all Smithsonian public museums are free to visit. Come and go as you please as often as you can fit this museum into your next trip. You will be inspired the way President Roosevelt imagined.


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