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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is only a couple blocks from my office, and like all Smithsonian museums, it's free, making it a good place to go during lunch. I finally walked over there yesterday, with relatively low expectations because the idea of portraits didn't really excite me -- I was really just looking for a peaceful break from the office. But it was surprisingly satisfying. For one, the building is rather grand, providing lots of dignified peace and quiet for lunchtime ruminations (especially in the middle of a weekday). As I Iearned from a nice little exhibit on its history, the building was originally the Patent Office, then the largest office building in the U.S. at 333,000 square feet (I wasn't taking notes, that's just an easy number to remember). They needed all that space because back in the 19th century, not only did they keep lots of paper records, but patent regulations required aspiring inventors to submit models of their inventions. The building's great hall was filled with display cases holding tens of thousands of models of newfangled gadgets, which attracted many visitors. It would be really awesome if we were still able to gawk at mock-ups of all the little wrong turns in forward progress, but most of the models were lost in a fire in the late 1800s.

Anyway, like I was saying, the Portrait Gallery is actually pretty interesting, too. (It shares the building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which I've not been to yet.) Part of why it works is that the context they provide for the portraits makes them more meaningful, and even if you've seen that famous portrait of George Washington hundreds of times, seeing the (rather large) original goes a long way toward making you actually look at it. And while it might be different for someone who is more immersed in history than me, the touches of personality detectable in some of the portraits I looked at reminded me that these larger-than-life historical figures were actually people. (I realize this reads as incredibly corny and cliche, but this is the actual reaction I had.) This photo of Lincoln, taken shortly before he was assassinated, was particularly striking when looking at the large print in person:

Along those lines, watching footage of FDR giving speeches also made him a less imposing historical figure, and made today's political discourse seem a little less depressing by reminding me that the history book version doesn't really do justice to the crass everyday give-and-take of politics -- which makes the historical points of reference look better than the churning mess you're immersed in.

Well, enough meandering -- in any case, I'm glad to have these museums down the street (and the National Building Museum right across the street).

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