"How do you sort all these people out?" Fred Voss is saying. He's smiling, but there's a hint of despair in his voice.

Voss is the senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, the stately if slightly dilapidated outpost of the Smithsonian Institution at Eighth and F streets NW, just west of the MCI Center. A 28-year gallery veteran who favors multi-hued sweaters and keeps his reading glasses on a cord around his neck, he's just finished a tour of one of the museum's core attractions, the Hall of Presidents, and now he's standing in a second-floor hallway surrounded by framed likenesses of 19th-century actors and actresses: Ira Aldridge, Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman. But he's not talking about them. No, as one of the official gatekeepers at the Portrait Gallery -- charged by act of Congress with certifying the historical significance of each and every personage admitted

to its permanent collection -- Voss is decrying the glut of celebrities on the market today: "the terrific plethora of

so-called notable people on the current or recently current scenes."

Take film stars.

"Let's say that Gwyneth Paltrow's career ended today," Voss says. "And a year from now somebody came and asked us if we were interested . . . "

No chance, Gywn, and never mind that Best Actress award. "I would say that she was a flash in the pan."

Take athletes.

"Okay, Andre Agassi -- what athlete is better known? Okay, Michael Jordan, yeah, Magic Johnson, yeah, but certainly in the lesser sports, what athlete is better known than Andre Agassi? But what has he done in tennis? What significant has he done?"

Take politicians.

"Gee whiz, to go back a little ways -- I mean, if you lived in Washington in a certain time, well, everybody knew who Carl Albert was, didn't we? Here we did. But we're making these decisions -- oh my God, he must be important, Carl Albert. Sure, yeah, he must be important!"

As Voss holds forth on this early spring afternoon, he tries to keep his voice down, but doesn't always succeed. Visitors stroll past him and up the wide hallway, through a collection of famous faces that have been selected, as the signage informs them, "from the museum's collection of portraits depicting notable Americans from the early colonial era through much of the twentieth century." Behind them is Gilbert Stuart's clench-jawed portrait of George Washington, an instantly recognizable image now engraved on billions of dollar bills. Ahead and one flight down -- past rooms lined with inventors, robber barons, reformers, generals, aviators, artists and civil rights pioneers -- is an almost equally familiar image: Andy Warhol's dayglo silk screen of Marilyn Monroe.

We'll get to Marilyn eventually. But let's stick with the statesmen for now.

Across the hall from where Voss is standing, above a doorway in Gallery 210, hangs a portrait of a darkly handsome, semi-shaven man named Richard Mentor Johnson. As vice president under Martin Van Buren, Johnson scandalized Washington by keeping a mixed-race mistress and presiding over the Senate in boorish fashion. His main claim to fame -- an unprovable one, as it happens, made decades after the event -- was that he, personally, had shot and killed the visionary Shawnee chief Tecumseh during the War of 1812. Otherwise, as the wall label written by Voss points out, Richard Mentor Johnson "could claim few lasting accomplishments."

Vice president? Few lasting accomplishments? The question arises: Will the gallery be collecting a portrait of Dan Quayle soon?

History's gatekeeper ducks it.

"I don't know!" he says. "I'm not answering that!"

`This Is Not Just Godly Territory'

The National Portrait Gallery may be the strangest, least known and most fascinating major cultural institution in Washington. There are any number of ways to think about it, but the overwhelming temptation is to see it as America's Hall of Fame.

And why not? Isn't it the Portrait Gallery's mission, assigned by Congress, to collect the images of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States"?

Isn't it true, as Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman believes, that the gallery is "a manifestation of the great person theory of history" -- the venerable, if not fashionable, idea that the actions of dynamic individuals, not of large groups or impersonal historical forces, shape human destiny?

Doesn't the gallery boast a rigorous admissions procedure during which the accomplishments of potential honorees are measured against those of their peers, just as is done when, say, Carl Yastrzemski gets nominated for the baseball shrine in Cooperstown?

In short, isn't what we have here an indisputably hall-of-fame-like enterprise -- "a family album of American greatness," as an editorial in this newspaper once described it; a modern Pantheon by the Potomac?

The very suggestion can make a gallery staffer spit.

"I want you to choke every time you say that word!" says cultural historian Amy Henderson, one of Voss's colleagues. Henderson, a onetime Jefferson scholar who's become an expert on such phenomena as the Broadway musical and the early days of broadcasting, talks as volubly with her hands as with her voice ("I'm not a chamber music sort of person, I'm grand opera"). But no mere gesture can express her contempt for the term "pantheon," and she drives her point home with a series of violent gagging noises. "It's a Greek notion," she explains when she calms down. "It's pan -- all -- gods, pan theos. And this is not just godly territory."

The gallery has villains as well as heroes, Henderson says, and represents more than just the traditional hierarchy. A better way to think about it, she suggests, is as "a museum of American biography."

NPG Director Alan Fern echoes Henderson, but narrows her definition slightly. His gallery's mission is "vis-ual biography," Fern says. "The history of this country is told by showing people who have contributed to it."

"These lives are so interesting," says photography curator Mary Panzer. "You could bring anyone who didn't know the history of America and take them through our halls and they can learn an awful lot . . . That seems to be a real function that the Portrait Gallery serves."

There's more going on here than biography and history, though.

The gallery's congressional authorization calls for it to study not only the portraits and statues of significant historical figures, but "the artists who created such portraits and statuary" as well. Over the years, it appears to have pursued this history-of-portraiture mandate with increasing enthusiasm. And while those who work there laud the creative synergy they say results from these twinned tasks, the gallery's identity can sometimes blur.

Is it a museum of history? Is it a museum of art? The blur is exacerbated by the fact that the Portrait Gallery shares its building with the National Museum of American Art, another Smithsonian outpost, which falls quite clearly in the latter camp. What's worse -- from the Portrait Gallery's point of view, at least -- is that American Art's director has made clear her belief that the two museums would be better off merged. With major renovations to the building scheduled to close both indefinitely beginning in January, the question of their relationship has been much in the air this spring.

But however you define it, the National Portrait Gallery is unique. What other museum can offer a visitor the full, epic sweep of the American story, made accessible through the human face? You can begin at the startling portrait of Pocahontas in English dress ("It doesn't look anything like she did in the movie," Voss says, "which troubles some of our younger visitors") and work your way room by room through nearly 400 years' worth of famous physiognomies, marveling at the lost worlds they evoke. Never mind that the gallery can feel, as its curators and historians readily acknowledge, more than a little musty and old-fashioned: The possibility -- however remote -- that its mission could be significantly redefined puts them on edge.

Which makes this as good a time as any to ask another basic question:

What kind of person gets into America's Hall of Fame -- okay, okay, America's Museum of Visual Biography -- and why?

`A Catastrophe That May Still Be Averted'

"I was going to do a slide lecture," Margaret Christman is saying: " `Does Jerry Garcia Belong in the National Portrait Gallery?' And I've done really quite considerable research on this, and I talked to a lot of the Deadheads, and you know the answer that comes back from some of them is literally, `Would Jerry Garcia want to be in the National Portrait Gallery?' "

Christman is a gallery historian who works, for some long-lost bureaucratic reason, not in the history office with Voss and Henderson but in the painting and sculpture department. A portrait made of her this day would show a gray-haired woman with a lively, toothy grin and a paper clip attached to the collar of her plain blue blouse. From a nearby file cabinet, a taped-up photo of Newt Gingrich would signal her political allegiance, and from a poster on the wall behind her, a six-gun-wielding Ronald Reagan -- "Oh geez, I love him; my granddaughter is called Reagan" -- would gaze out over the stacks of printouts from Christman's latest research project. Which, as it happens, is a history of the Portrait Gallery itself.

To read the manuscript Maggie Christman is preparing, and to talk to others who were present at the creation, is to marvel at how far the gallery has come in the past three decades. It is also to wonder how this exceedingly peculiar institution got off the ground in the first place.

The idea for an American National Portrait Gallery, Christman writes, goes back as far as the late 18th century, when the painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale put together "what was sometimes advertised as `The American Pantheon, or Peale's Collection of Portraits of American Patriots.' " In 1859, when the National Portrait Gallery in London opened its doors, would-be American imitators took note, but nothing much resulted.

The 20th-century progress of the gallery idea is a tangled tale. By the 1950s, however, the nascent museum had a number of home-grown champions, among them the Smithsonian -- which, in its hundred-odd years of existence, had built up a considerable art collection and acquired a number of portraits along the way. Meanwhile, tycoon-philanthropist Andrew Mellon had included a collection of American portraits in the gift that established the National Gallery of Art; it was Mellon's intent that these should be transferred to a National Portrait Gallery if such a museum should come into being. David Finley, a Philadelphia lawyer and close Mellon associate who became the National Gallery of Art's first director, was among those who fought hardest for the portrait gallery idea. (One of the surest ways to get yourself into a Museum of Visual Biography, it seems, is to help start one: The NPG now owns several portraits of David Finley.)

In 1962, John F. Kennedy signed a bill creating the museum. It was to be run by the Smithsonian and housed in the Old Patent Office Building, which had been threatened with demolition in favor of a parking garage before it was rescued by preservationists and gallery partisans. There was one tiny problem with this plan: The building was to be shared, at least for the time being, with the National Museum of American Art (then called the National Collection of Fine Arts). But nobody lost much sleep over that. There were way too many other things to lose sleep over.

There was the almost total lack of a collection, for one. "To found a portrait gallery in the 1960s," as then-Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley pointed out, was to do so at a time when "American portraiture has already reached the zenith in price and the nadir in supply." Ripley, an enthusiastic supporter of the enterprise, believed that the new museum would have to build its reputation through scholarship and temporary exhibitions, not collecting.

There was the astonishingly unhelpful provision -- written into law at the insistence of a jealous Library of Congress -- that the National Portrait Gallery would be forbidden to acquire photographs.

There was the building itself. A dignified Greek Revival edifice whose cornerstone had been laid in 1836, it was replete with historical associations: Clara Barton and Walt Whitman had helped tend the wounded of Antie-tam and Fredericksburg on its marble floors, and Abraham Lincoln had celebrated his second inaugural there. By 1967, when gallery staffers finally started moving in, it was also replete with maintenance problems, awkwardly configured spaces and government-green paint.

There was the opening exhibition, scheduled for October 1968. A skeleton staff scrambled to borrow a representative sample of great Americans for a show that was to be called "This New Man: A Discourse in Portraits" but might as well have been called "The National Portrait Gallery Wish List: Won't Someone Give Us Some Pictures Like These -- Please?"

There were the opening festivities, one highlight of which was a symposium featuring historian Marcus Cunliffe and anthropologist Margaret Mead. As Christman notes, quoting liberally from an internal gallery memo titled "Observations After the Fiasco," attendance was sparse. What was worse, "the Friday night session had been delayed until nine o'clock to accommodate Dillon Ripley's dinner party, and by the time Marcus Cunliffe held forth . . . a large part of the gathering was `openly and embarrassingly asleep.' The most memorable moment of the symposium -- as reported in the New Yorker -- was when Margaret Mead looked out at the completely white gathering and remarked, `This is a black city. There's something wrong with this audience. Some people are not here.' "

Finally, there were the negative reviews. "If you read that the National Portrait Gallery is a total failure, don't believe it," wrote one relatively generous critic. "It can be more accurately described as a catas-trophe that may still be averted . . . "

And these were just the little problems.

Of far greater concern was the fact that the museum was launched in 1968, "one of the most unsettling years in the history of the republic," as Christman puts it. With the gallery's neighborhood in flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (one veteran staffer remembers standing at a window "and watching this whole street burn down"), with the war in Vietnam polarizing the country, with historians rejecting the great man theory in favor of more complex historical explanations, and with television well established as the culture's defining communications medium, it seemed hardly the optimal launch date for a temple of ancestor worship that was forbidden to collect filmed images.

Yet launched it was -- and not without joy, despite the complications. The start-up phase "was just such a wonderful time," recalls curator of exhibitions Beverly Cox, who came to the gallery on a three-month temporary appointment in 1968 and has been there ever since. "We were a very small staff and everybody did a little bit of everything," she says. "There was a great camaraderie."

Sometimes they tracked down portraits, and sometimes portraits came to them. Sometimes they scraped together money for purchases, and sometimes they pleaded for donations. "I am engaged in getting the National Portrait Gallery started, a difficult task in that it is starting at least a hundred years late and our purchase funds are almost nonexistent," wrote the gallery's first director in a typical letter to a potential patron. "So I come to you again as a beggar."

Gradually, steadily, the portraits rolled in: Louisa May Alcott. Thomas Hart Benton. Rachel Carson. Salmon P. Chase. Eugene V. Debs. Albert Einstein. Robert Frost. Horatio Gates. Henry George. Robert Goddard. Alexander Hamilton. Charles Hughes. Chief Joseph. Alice Roosevelt Longworth. William H. McGuffey. J.P. Morgan . . .

No portrait was even considered unless the "sitter" was deemed historically significant by gallery staffers -- but they didn't have the final word. That went to the members of the National Portrait Gallery Commission, the museum's ruling body, whose members -- appointed by the Smithsonian regents -- had to vote on each new name. The early commissioners worried about maintaining valid standards. They thought the Portrait Gallery "should be the one place in the United States where the distinguished men and women in the history of our country come to life again." When they said distinguished, they meant distinguished: For the most part, they were socially conservative in their choices.

Still, they didn't want to be seen as total fogies. And as early as 1969, the modern culture of celebrity began to poke its sexy little nose under the tent.

Tallulah Bankhead, the daughter of a speaker of the House and granddaughter of a U.S. senator, was a middling sort of actress who became famous, as one Web site devoted to her memory allows, as much "for her drinking, drug taking and many affairs with men and women" as for her up-and-down theater and film career. Near the end of her life, she was best known for calling people "dahling" on late-night television. Still, commissioner Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis -- a wealthy New England blue blood and gallery mainstay -- had no doubt that Bankhead belonged.

"By all means, let's dance a hullah for Tallulah!" he proclaimed.

`You Said Yes to Her?'

Thirty years later . . .

The scene: an elegant, high-ceilinged meeting room in the National Portrait Gallery, one floor up and down a long hall from where Tallulah Bankhead's portrait hangs.

The occasion: a monthly curatorial meeting, at which potential acquisitions will be discussed before being presented to the commission for approval. From an oil painting to the left of the door, the late David Finley peers somberly out at two curators, two assistant curators, three historians and the gallery's deputy director, Carolyn Carr.

The first order of business is a plaster relief of Henry Clay -- the enormously influential Whig statesman and three-time presidential candidate -- made in his honor after the Compromise of 1850.

A cautionary note: The gallery owns 51 portraits of the Great Pacificator already.

"Historic moment -- fantastic," someone says.

"Normally I wouldn't come out for another Henry Clay," says Maggie Christman. "But with this, there's a great caption to be written."

"I agree," says Carr, who is running the meeting. "I think we should go ahead and present it."

Next up is actress Katharine Cornell -- or rather, an oil-on-canvas portrait of someone who's probably not Cornell, despite what the owner believes. "The whole Katharine Cornell look is very different from this," says painting and sculpture curator Ellen Miles.

No sale.

More names follow, among them former Red Sox and White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. It's not clear yet if the portrait is being donated, but if it is, Fisk will get "temporary" status. The gallery often acquires portraits of living people -- "betting on history," Carr calls it -- but no one except a president or a presidential spouse can be added to the permanent collection until he or she has been dead 10 years.

"We've been offered a portrait of Patricia Schroeder, which the historians say is appropriate," Miles says.

Uh-oh. Here comes trouble.

"You said yes to her?" says Christman, incredulous, turning to Fred Voss. "She was never even chairman of a committee!" There's laughter all around -- this group knows one another's foibles well -- and Voss begins his defense of Schroeder. Then someone holds up a photograph of the portrait, and the argument stops.

One curator sticks out her tongue.

"She looks like the Breck girl," says another.

"I'd rather have her in a better portrait," says Carr diplomatically.

"You can relax, Mag," says Amy Henderson, grinning.

Next.

And so it goes, as they talk about actress Dorothy Stickney (Carr has been previously chastised, she says, for not immediately recognizing the woman who starred in "Life With Father" on Broadway) and back-to-the-land guru Scott Nearing and African Methodist Episcopal bishop Morris Brown, all of whom are being considered for the first time. A good many of the names on today's list are, like Henry Clay, already among the anointed; in these cases, discussion centers not on their significance, but on what the proposed acquisition would add.

There's a lot of expertise around the table, both historical and artistic. People talk knowledgeably about obscure forms of 19th-century iconography such as reverse painting on glass, about the contributions of critic Van Wyck Brooks as a definer of the American character, about the casting of Dorothy Dandridge -- the first African American woman, as someone points out, to make the cover of Life magazine -- in the title role of "Carmen Jones." The meeting moves quickly, in part because there's already been a lot of back-and-forth between the historians and the three main curatorial departments (painting and sculpture, prints and drawings, and photography -- the photo ban was mercifully overturned in 1976). This history/art dialogue is central to the workings of the Portrait Gallery, and the earliest stage occurs in people's heads: The curators won't bother to argue for a portrait if the subject is too obviously pedestrian.

Though they'll do their best to push the envelope at times.

"Fred has turned up his nose at Horace Binney," says prints and drawings curator Wendy Reaves as she shows off a handsome print of a prominent 19th-century lawyer she wants to buy.

"My feeling was, he just didn't make it," Voss says. "Vidal v. Philadelphia -- you remember that case?" He laughs. "I'm not making this up."

Reaves won't concede the point; she keeps talking about the historical significance of the lithograph itself. Why not put Binney in the study collection, someone suggests -- a special gallery category created for such marginal cases -- and "we'll admit him when we admit Pat Schroeder."

Done.

Upton Sinclair, Clare Booth Luce, Rosa Parks: The group has moved on to photographs now. Here's Brooks Robinson, in his first season as an Oriole, diving to his left (he didn't get to the ball, alas). And here's Shari Lewis -- two Shari Lewises, in fact -- one in color, showing Shari with an unidentified little boy; one in black and white, showing her with a couple of cute sock puppets.

The black and white wins out.

"She's got Lamb Chop," Carr explains.

"That's what she's famous for," Voss says.

Fame and Circumstance

"The history of fame is sort of a sideline to what we do," says Wendy Reaves. But "sideline" is too modest a word here. In fact, if you want to think about the evolution and meaning of well-knownness in America -- about whom we choose to celebrate, and why, and how this changed from the time George Washington led his ragged rebel army across the Delaware to the time Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop debuted on "Captain Kangaroo" -- there may be no better place to start than the National Portrait Gallery.

And who better to kick off the Fame Tour than the Father of Our Country himself?

You could begin, as Fred Voss does one spring day, by standing in front of that familiar Gilbert Stuart, near the entrance to the Hall of Presidents, and maybe pulling out a dollar bill to compare the images (the one on the money has been reversed, and lacks red cheeks). Then you could walk across the second-floor rotunda to check out the "porthole portrait" by Rembrandt Peale. This was Peale's attempt "to create the national icon of Washington," Voss explains. Tough luck, Rembrandt; Stuart's version prevailed.

You could pause by a nearby portrait of an Episcopal clergyman. Mason Locke Weems is here because he wrote a heavily fictionalized life of Washington, complete with an invented tale about a murdered cherry tree.

Or you could follow Wendy Reaves into one of the back rooms where prints and drawings are stored and watch her carefully unwrap a treasured mezzotint, a long-missing work by Rembrandt Peale's father, Charles Willson Peale, that a New York print shop owner pulled out to show her a few years back. "I knew instantly what it was," Reaves confides, voice hushed as she recalls her triumph. The striking thing about this George Washington, likely copied from a miniature painted in 1776, is that he's far more relaxed and human-looking than the grim-faced burden-bearer of later years.

But enough about George. At this rate, the Fame Tour will never get out of the 18th century.

There are dozens of tempting stops. You'll want to pay your respects to cranky old John Adams, who watched the "idolatrous" deification of Washington in full knowledge that his own accomplishments would be overshadowed as a result. You should at least bow in the direction of Benjamin Franklin, an extraordinary man of multiple talents and an awesome self-promoter to boot.

Dedicated fame tourists will insist on paying homage to Andrew Jackson, the Man of the People who preened so often for posterity that he had his favorite portrait painter move in with him, and to handsome young Winfield Scott, who became an "overnight idol" when he had two horses shot from under him at the Battle of Lundy's Lane. (Pop quiz: Can you name the war?) One of Voss's favorites is our 12th chief executive, Zachary Taylor -- a prototype of presidential packaging, the historian says, who "had nothing whatsoever to recommend him for elected office except the fact that he was a general." (Pop quiz answer: the War of 1812.)

This may be as good a point as any to note that the early pessimism about the National Portrait Gallery's ability to actually acquire national portraits has proved unjustified. Over the years, it has played catch-up with great skill and perseverance, and today, like most museums, it owns way more stuff -- roughly 18,000 images -- than it can possibly display. Much hard work by many people made this happen, but the name that sticks out in most accounts is that of Marvin Sadik, who served as director from 1969 through 1981 and now runs Marvin Sadik Fine Arts Inc., out of Prout's Neck, Maine.

"How to describe Marvin," muses Maggie Christman, an unabashed admirer. "He was outrageous, he could say everything." A Harvard-trained art historian who had run museums at Bowdoin College and the University of Connecticut, Sadik arrived in Washington as an ambitious young man of 37 with ostentatiously discriminating taste and a suffer-no-fools style that bordered on rudeness ("Don't we do anything right?" his Smithsonian boss once asked after a salvo of Sadik complaints). Not surprisingly, when it came to collection-building, he didn't sit on his hands.

He took home volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography, trolling for eligible names. ("I read the whole damn thing," he recalls.) Once, when he couldn't reach the owner of a portrait he coveted, he asked the FBI for advice. (Call his neighbor, the G-men suggested. Sadik did, and got his man.) Once his staff told him that there were no Grover Clevelands to be had. ("But his children were still living! I went and visited them! Got three great portraits!")

Far more important than any individual acquisition, however, was Sadik's assault on the absurd photography ban. On January 19, 1976, Congress finally passed the necessary amendment, which the Library of Congress, having come to its senses, now supported. The gallery began to collect in earnest the following year.

A good thing it was, too. Because if you're trying to trace the history of American celebrity without photography, you might as well end your Fame Tour in the 1840s and 1850s. That was when Mathew Brady began to create his daguerreotypes, glass-plate negatives and cartes de visites -- small, inexpensive photographic images -- of famous Americans.

The consequences were immediate, as Leo Braudy points out in The Frenzy of Renown, an ambitious study of fame through the ages: "Abraham Lincoln said that he owed his election both to the Cooper Union speech that introduced him to the publishers and politicians of the East and to the carte de visite made of him on that occasion by Mathew Brady." The day after he got to Washington, Lincoln headed for the photographer's studio to have another likeness made. The president "exploited the new medium," Braudy writes, "to impress his own image of solemnity and seriousness of purpose on the eyes of the nation" -- an intimate form of political communication unavailable to his predecessors.

The Portrait Gallery's photographic holdings grew rapidly, and a few years later, it acquired a major collection of Brady's work -- some 5,400 glass-plate negatives, a bonanza of famous or once-famous faces. Among those who sat for portraits by Brady and his assistants was one Phineas T. Barnum. This master showman had gotten his start by exhibiting a supposedly 161-year-old woman who claimed to have been George Washington's nurse; he went on to hype such acts as Jenny Lind and Tom Thumb into international sensations. It was this genius for publicity-generation, historians now argue, that made Barnum -- like Mathew Brady -- a pioneer of the new age of fame.

The fame of Washington's day "had a lot to do with civic virtue and duty and noblesse oblige," Wendy Reaves observes. "By the end of the 19th century these components of fame had changed very dramatically. There's much more emphasis on self-made success -- and, primarily, attracting a public audience." In other words, the famous person's actual accomplishments were becoming less important than his or her ability to draw the spotlight.

All this is hugely oversimplified, of course. Plenty of people besides Mathew Brady and P.T. Barnum helped shape the celebrity culture we're immersed in now. Numerous technological advances besides photography made this culture possible. And there are a lot of ways to explain the kind of people we'd now be admitting to our National Hall of Fame, if such an institution had somehow come to exist.

Amy Henderson talks about the "rise of a popular culture based on personality and fueled by mass technology." George Mason historian Roy Rosenzweig, in turn, talks about "the decline of the nation-state." When historians start defining people like P.T. Barnum as major historical figures, Rosenzweig explains, it tells us that "we're focusing on a culture that transcends nationalism," and that the familiar, uplifting narrative of nation-building, with its heroic statesmen and generals -- "the most powerful story that historians tell" -- is losing its grip.

The Fame Tour's not nearly over yet. Still ahead are names like Teddy Roosevelt ("in terms of projection of personality," says Voss, "I don't know that we have ever had a president who was his equal") and Gertrude Stein (tired of wiping the lipstick stains off her Buddha-like sculpted form, gallery staffers have enclosed Stein in plexiglass). Not to mention Mary Pickford, Charles Lindbergh, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Robeson and Joe DiMaggio.

But even now, if you crane your neck a bit, you should be able to see that Warhol Marilyn, glowing pink and green and turquoise in its shrinelike alcove down the hall.

Looking for Mr. Anshutz

"On this wall is perhaps his most famous role," Jeffrey Stewart is saying. A tall, handsome African American man in a blue blazer, khakis and wire-rimmed glasses, he is standing in a small room off the Portrait Gallery's first-floor corridor, in front of a photograph of a tall, handsome African American man with no shirt who is toting an enormous bale of cotton.

Stewart, a colleague of Roy Rosenzweig's in the George Mason history department, is the curator of "Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen," a traveling exhibition that came to the gallery earlier this year. The photograph is a still from the 1936 film version of "Show Boat." This image, Stewart tells the 40 or so people who have joined him for this lunchtime tour, "shows the problem Robeson began to encounter" as an increasingly successful black actor in the '30s. The film drew fire from African American critics for its derogatory stereotyping.

Paul Robeson was a strong-willed man of enormous talent whose story is well told in Stewart's show. Near the beginning is a photograph that shows him with a couple of his Rutgers football teammates: "Robeson was stomped, beaten and gang-tackled by white players determined to exclude him," the wall label says. They couldn't, and he went on to become an All-American.

There are images from his years at Columbia Law School and from his early success in plays like "The Emperor Jones." In one room, a tape of spirituals and popular songs recorded by Robeson -- who was described as having "a voice in which deep bells ring" -- offers a quiet soundtrack. Throughout the exhibition you can track his sometimes problematic but always courageous engagement with many of the great issues of his day: the struggle against fascism, the drive for racial and economic justice, and the troubling clash between anti-communism and civil liberties.

No single life can tell the story of a century, but Robeson's gets you farther toward that goal than most. Which makes this a perfect exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery, the kind of thing a history museum should be doing all the time -- right?

Well . . .

Stewart is a big fan of the Portrait Gallery. Museums that do what it does are rare, he says; when he tried to find a Southern California venue for his show, he had trouble, "because in Los Angeles, there is no major history museum."

But the very success of a richly historical exhibition like this throws some light on the things the gallery doesn't do well -- especially in its permanent collection. And in so doing, it raises the vexing question of identity once again.

To what extent is the National Portrait Gallery a museum of history? A museum of biography? An art museum with a historical theme? What happens if it tries to be all three at once?

As a history museum, the gallery's great strength lies in its ambition and scope, in the idea that its walls of faces can somehow evoke the whole of the American experience. Yet except when it stages something elaborate and temporary -- whether a special exhibition, like the Robeson show, or a historical reenactment of some kind -- it doesn't do much with the broad historical themes those faces evoke. You can walk around the New Deal gallery, which is filled with portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Cabinet, and get no feel for the Depression at all.

Viewed as a museum of biography, the Portrait Gallery's task appears less daunting. Yet there is a huge range of biographical matter that it can't touch. Ordinary Civil War soldiers left an unprecedented trove of autobiographical material; the gallery gives us only generals. Ordinary Americans of all kinds who left diaries and other records of their lives have been of increasing interest to historians; gallery staffers are barred from exploring this terrain.

One exception came a few months back, when public program director Jewell Robinson invited Mount Vernon's official George Washington impersonator to perform. The first person she brought onstage was not George, as it happened, but one of his slaves -- a skilled carpenter named Neptune -- and the evening turned into a provocative dialogue between worlds not normally shown in the same frame. When the performance ended, however, Neptune's world was still missing from the gallery's walls.

Even if we define our museum of biography as for the famous only, there's a serious problem. Biography implies a depth of understanding of the kind the Robeson exhibition displayed. Other special exhibitions and programs at the Portrait Gallery have provided this kind of depth. But when it comes to the heart of the enterprise -- the permanent collection -- what you see is what you get: a portrait with a wall label.

The portraits are often terrific, the wall labels artfully done. But to call this "biography" seems a bit of an overstatement.

This brings us to our third identity option: to see the Portrait Gallery as fundamentally a museum of portraiture, not history, though with a mandatory historical component.

The people who run the gallery reject this view with considerable vehemence. "It's not. That's the answer. It's not," says Alan Fern, a quiet, scholarly man who has headed the gallery since 1982, and who is not easy to agitate. "I think that argument is a specious one, and I believe that anyone who watches the people here, anyone who's followed the subjects that we have covered in our exhibitions . . . would have to say, well, wait a minute, this is not just an art museum at all."

He's right, of course: The staff works hard to keep the competing interests of history and art in equilibrium. It is true, as Wendy Reaves acknowledges, that most gallery acquisitions are initiated by the three main curatorial departments -- the historians don't do so as often, because they're not the ones out beating the bushes in the art market. But while a curator may bring a picture in, she says, "it's not going to make one step towards acquisition until the historians have passed it."

Through an outsider's eyes, however, the art/history equation can seem unbalanced in important ways, starting with the gallery's leadership. Both long-term gallery directors, Marvin Sadik and Alan Fern, have been art historians by training. The current deputy director, Carolyn Carr, also comes with an art history background.

Art historians, quite naturally, get excited about art and the people who make it. A current gallery exhibition curated by Carr features the work of photographer Hans Namuth, who made his name shooting Jackson Pollock and dozens of other art world notables. When a large collection of 20th-century self-portraits turns up as a potential gift -- it includes a number of generally recognizable artists, but many more who are not -- an excited buzz sweeps through the curatorial meeting: "Fantastic!" "Terrific!" "Incredible opportunity!"

Alan Fern, asked about the gallery's tendency to organize shows as much around art and artists as around historical subjects, says, "Oh, we do both. I make no apology for that." Then he starts pulling gallery publications from his bookshelf. "You've got Covarrubias, an artist, and then you've got Rembrandt Peale, an artist. At the same time you have `Facing the Light,' a medium" (this was a photography show). "Okay, you have artists' self-portraits, you've got `1846' " (a history show). "You have Lachaise, an artist, right next to `American Portraiture in the Grand Manner,' a kind of way of looking at portraits. You've got two artists. You've got `The Spirit of Party: Hamilton and Jefferson,' and so on."

That's Art 8, History 2, if you're scoring along with us today.

Another month, another curatorial meeting. First up this time is a bronze relief of someone named Thomas Anshutz. "I think it's nice," says Carr, and they move on. If you don't happen to know that Anshutz was a 19th-century painter and photographer, all you have to do is type his name into a Web search engine. Up comes the Web site of . . . the National Museum of American Art.

When Secretary Heyman thinks about the future of the two Smithsonian museums that share the Old Patent Office Building, he says, he can imagine a number of possible organizational models. "The most radical one would be one museum," he says, but he has essentially ruled that out. Another, also not likely, would be to "have both directors report to a third entity, a third person, a third whatever." The least radical option -- and the most likely -- would involve only minor changes in the status quo. "God only knows what will happen over the next year or so," he says. "What is certain is that the Portrait Gallery is not going to lose its identity."

Heyman says he sees the National Portrait Gallery as "more of a history museum than an art museum," one that relates more to the National Museum of American History than to its immediate neighbor. He says he's not familiar with day-to-day operations at the gallery, but thinks the curatorial staff is strong. He is surprised to hear that the curators, not the historians, initiate the majority of gallery acquisitions.

"I didn't know that," he says. "Perhaps it would be better if it were the other way around."

The Center for the Study of Comparative Notoriety

Maybe so, maybe not. The culling of notable Americans for admission to the National Portrait Gallery can feel at times like the construction of history itself: sometimes logical and fair-minded, but just as often idiosyncratic or skewed. Like history, the gallery's workings are a process, not a set of immutable facts and principles, and there's usually more to them than appears on the surface. Which is a good thing to remember -- because on the surface, they can look an awful lot like an irresistible parlor game.

Let's call the game "Does Dan Quayle Deserve to Be in the National Portrait Gallery?"

Back to you, Fred Voss.

"Well, the thing is," Voss says, "I do think it is too early to tell." He's considering the question seriously now, not trying to duck it anymore. "Dan Quayle was not a vice president who shook up a whole lot of things. Now he may go on to something, and it may not necessarily be being elected as president . . ."

Get real, Fred -- you've got Richard Mentor Johnson across the hall!

"But see, he killed Tecumseh!" Voss says, and lets out a got-you-that-time laugh.

Just a few weeks after this exchange, however, bad things start to happen to Martin Van Buren's raffish vice president. On the morning of May 3, a crew from the design and production department carefully removes his portrait from above the door frame in Gallery 210, where it has hung for many years. Roof repairs have closed the third-floor space where the Civil War collection has been displayed, and staffers have decided it is more important to have the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Frederick Douglass and John Brown available for viewing than some uncouth former Indian fighter from Kentucky. "The following pieces will be removed from the locations noted and taken to permanent storage," the authorizing memo reads, and it lists more than 30 names. While some of those exiled will no doubt return once the building renovations have been completed, Johnson was a marginal choice for display already. Odds are that, for him, it's dustbin-of-history time.

Which is a shame, really, when you think about it. Because there remains one way of looking at this gloriously eccentric institution in which both Dan Quayle (a man still trapped by the way he first was defined publicly) and Richard Mentor Johnson (a man who rode a single, dubious achievement almost as far as the White House) would deserve places of honor. And that is to define it not just as a museum of history, biography and/or art, but as a true, literal, serious . . .

(Choke, choke) . . .

Hall of Fame.

Oh, it wouldn't have to call itself that. It could call itself the National Museum of Celebrity and Iconography, or the Smithsonian Center for the Study of Comparative Notoriety, or -- whatever. The point would not be to insist on the name itself, with all its lowbrow connotations (though a National Hall of Fame just might draw a few more visitors than the roughly 400,000 a year the National Portrait Gallery gets now).

No, the point would be to stop worrying so much about the impossible task of weighing Shari Lewis and George Washington on the same "significance" scale and do what a historically oriented National Portrait Gallery in the 21st century is best equipped to do. Which is not merely to preserve a visual record of the people Americans have -- for whatever reasons -- singled out for renown, but to help us understand what those choices mean.

The gallery has been doing this for years, of course, both consciously and unconsciously. Almost two decades ago, it put on a wonderfully conceived exhibition of 19th-century notables who had ended up (as one reviewer phrased it) in "fame's out basket." Last year's "Celebrity Caricature in America," put together by Wendy Reaves, was a kind of advanced tutorial on modern fame. Ask Amy Henderson what she's up to now and she'll tell you she's "working on a show about Hollywood imagery and the rise of celebrity culture." Sit through a Portrait Gallery restaging of the trial of John Brown and you're likely to hear the heavily politicized notoriety of the radical abolitionist compared to that of O.J. Simpson: "People sometimes will pick a person as a symbol of a point of view," a gallery staffer explains.

When you talk to photography curator Mary Panzer about Brown, however, she's likely to pull out an amazing daguerreotype that dates from 1847, "12 years before he died, and before he murdered anyone in Kansas." This John Brown is an earnest-looking man with his dark hair combed straight back who lacks the lunatic intensity -- call it fanaticism, call it sainthood -- that later Brown portraits would evoke. "He's just a person, you know," Panzer says. "That wild-eyed crazy is nowhere -- no big beard!"

A few minutes later, Panzer shifts gears and centuries. She's talking now not about a man who may or may not have helped end slavery in America, but about a woman who . . .

did what, exactly? Made some movies? Died young? Married the Yankee Clipper and inspired bad prose by Norman Mailer? When the subject is Marilyn Monroe, no one doubts that the National Portrait Gallery has got to include her -- yet the precise nature of her "significant contribution" is not clear.

"That picture of Marilyn Monroe was from 1952," Panzer is saying, "and it's my belief that she invented herself -- that she and Philippe together collaborated to create that face." Philippe would be celebrity photographer Philippe Halsman, who shot the now universally recognizable Life magazine cover -- which was included in a Portrait Gallery show of Halsman's work last year -- of the young Monroe backed into a corner, white gown clinging, hunched shoulders bare, lids half closed, smiling a smile that the photographer said he induced by faking a competition for her attention. "Philippe tried a lot of things in that two days that he photographed her," Panzer says. "But she came up with that face, and that became her face."

The Halsman photographs are gone now, replaced by those of Hans Namuth. But if you walk out of the Namuth exhibition and look down the long, arched hallway past the gift shop (Marilyn T-shirts! Marilyn mouse pads! Marilyn paper dolls!), you'll find Monroe smiling at you still.

You'll want to walk down to see her, though a display of the gallery's recent acquisitions may distract you on the way. Here are Henry James and Dorothea Dix, John Wayne and Alger Hiss. Here are Muhammad Ali jumping rope under an American flag and Malcolm X selling Muslim papers in front of a Rexall drugstore. Here's a chalk drawing of a pink-faced merchant and land developer named John Thurman, who died in 1809, and here's a huge close-up of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who died in 1997, and look, here's an Andy Warhol drawing of Jamie Wyeth that "reminds us of Warhol's frequent use of the hand-drawn line to manipulate the photographic celebrity image."

There are no hand-drawn lines on Marilyn, however: just four separately framed prints, grouped to form a square. You'll find no hint of her significant contribution, either -- the wall label describes the artist's accomplishment, not the actress's. "In this portfolio, Warhol repeated the face of movie star Marilyn Monroe to emphasize her status as a commodity," it informs you. "Manipulating the effect through color contrasts and off-register printing, he created a chorus of multiple Marilyns that range from the sensual sex symbol to the nearly abstract, impenetrable mask."

Her parted lips look smeared. Her invented face seems hidden.

She doesn't seem to know herself just why she's here.

Bob Thompson is a staff writer for the Magazine.

CAPTION: Marilyn Monroe, far left, one of the chosen; the room where curators discuss acquisitions, left, is more typical of the gallery building's Greek Revival dignity.

CAPTION: Nation-builders and others enshrined in the gallery, counterclockwise from right: Pocahontas; George Washington, looking less dour than he does on the dollar bill; Richard Mentor Johnson, the vice president who claimed to have shot Tecumseh; John Adams, who noted the "idolatrous" deification of Washington; John Brown, beardless; and Andrew Jackson, Man of the People.

CAPTION: Opposite page: P.T. Barnum, left, and Mathew Brady, two figures who helped to change the fame game. The rise of celebrity culture would have its beneficiaries and its victims. This page, counterclockwise from top: Paul Robeson, renowned actor; Tallulah Bankhead, actress who ended up on late-night TV; Joe DiMaggio, on his way to the real Hall of Fame; Marilyn Monroe, against a wall; and Ernest Hemingway, in caricature.