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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Before the National Portrait Gallery had a Building

Forty nine years ago this week the National Portrait Gallery held opening ceremonies at its new home in the former Patent Office Building.  While you can visit their current home today, the National Portrait Gallery was established before it found this permanent home and portrait collections at the Smithsonian were among the earliest collections the Smithsonian, acquired in the 1840s. 

Picture Gallery, U.S. National Museum, 1906. Smithsonian Institution Archives, MAH-20026.
In 1919, citizens began active lobbying for a separate gallery devoted to American portraiture.  In the same year, the Smithsonian endorsed the National Art Commission to document a pictorial record of World War I with portraits of American and Allied Nations leaders.  Twenty portraits from this collection were put on exhibit in the Natural History Building in May 1921.  These portraits became the nucleus of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection and highlight the central mission of the National Portrait Gallery. Even at this early date, the National Portrait Gallery was not a fine art museum, it seeks to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture.

War Portrait Room of National Gallery, 1921. Smithsonian Institution Archives, MAH-8625B
In the museum’s authorization in 1962, Congress established its mission to acquire and display portraits of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States." Documenting the history and culture of America every bit as much as the National Museum of American History.  In its first exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building, sixty five portraits by fifty two artists are gathered as The Nucleus for a National Collection, which opened for the bicentennial of James Smithson’s birth.

National Portrait Gallery in the Old Patent Office Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 92-1710
Three years later, the National Portrait Gallery finally was able to hold opening ceremonies in its own building. On October 5th, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and Mayor Walter E. Washington attended a dedication ceremony and opening gala for the new building. Originally, the Patent Office Building, this 330,000 square foot building was begun in 1836, but wasn’t completed until 32 years later. Government agencies occupied the building until 1958, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian to save it from demolition. Though it didn’t officially become a Smithsonian building until 1958, it was the first building to house Smithsonian collections. Prior to the completion of the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle) in 1855 the U.S. Patent Office housed and exhibited the Smithsonian Collections. After a ten-year renovation, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum moved in. On October 6, 1968, an opening is held for the Smithsonian Associates and on October 7, 1968, the Gallery is opened to the public.

You can see more photos of the dedication and opening gala here, here, and here

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution Archives 

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