A grand photo portrait of educator and social activist Mary McLeod Bethune hangs above the fireplace in a Victorian house on Vermont Avenue NW. It serves to welcome the curious who have stepped in the door of the house-turned-museum that bears her name.

But her portrait also serves as a reminder of the spirit and the role of black women in history.

"We are the only museum and archives in the country devoted to the preservation of black women and artifacts," says Bettye C. Thomas, the director of the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and the National Archives for Black Women's History.

Last night about 75 guests wandered through the house, looking at the photos and documents on exhibition, at the first reception of the museum's advisory board, a group with members who came from Chicago, Connecticut and California.

The purpose of the event was to draw attention and money from local and national sources to help develop the collection. The museum, which has been open since 1979, has already garnered private funds from such corporations as Time Inc., Westinghouse and General Electric, in addition to funding from the National Park Service.

"Like any cultural institution, we are always pleading for funds," Thomas said. "Running museums and archives is a business like anything else, but we also serve the public."

Some of the displays, Thomas said, are designed to travel the country on exhibit and some are packaged, with posters and booklets, for distribution to schools as educational materials devoted to black women as a part of American history.

"It's documentation of facts that don't usually get documented," said Harriet Segar, an attorney adviser at the Federal Labor Relations Authority. "It's good for people to actually see something. You know, if you don't document it, it's gone."

Many of the museum collection's central elements, which include papers and photographs of the National Council of Negro Women, date back to 1935, when Bethune started the organization. They are housed in the archives, a carriage house behind the museum.

Robert Green, president of the University of the District of Columbia, stood looking at one of the photos on the wall, near the buffet table offering cheese and vegetables. He had left his glasses at home and borrowed some to read the cards beneath the pictures.

"Nowhere in this country have I seen such an outstanding collection," Green said. "This is living history."