The “Hall of Presidents” is closing Feb. 27, and a temporary version of the exhibition — now including an image of former president Barack Obama — will open in the museum’s West Gallery in March. Then, on Sept. 22, the museum will unveil the newly named and reconfigured “America’s Presidents” permanent installation in its refurbished space.
The museum will update the gallery with new carpet, lighting and technology to broaden visitors’ access to the presidents and their eras, said David Ward, senior historian.
“We’re telling a fairly complicated story about personality and social history,” Ward said. “We’re trying to provide more about the historical period, Lincoln and the crisis of the republic, FDR and the New Deal, the history of the presidency in relation to the country, the growth and rise of executive power.”
The presidential portraits are a critical part of the museum’s mission to tell American history. Created by Congress in 1962, the National Portrait Gallery holds the only national collection of presidential portraits outside the White House. The museum works with each administration to commission official portraits of the president and first lady for its permanent collection. A portrait is not included in the exhibition until after a president leaves office.
Initially, Obama will be represented by a Chuck Close woodburytype from 2013. His official portrait will be added to the gallery when it is completed.
The current exhibition was installed in 2006, when the historic Old Patent Office Building reopened after a six-year, $283 million renovation. The portrait gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum share the building. Ward said that works on paper and photographs are rotated in the exhibition but that it mostly has remained the same. The museum began discussing updating the presidents exhibition in 2014.
“History changes and triangulates constantly,” Ward said, offering President Andrew Jackson as an example. “Jackson in the 1950s was the democratic hero. He gave voice to the working man, the small farmer. He was the first frontier president. Now we look at Jackson and we think ‘Indian killer.’ We want to provide a balanced point of view. We add dimensions to the presidents from the perspective of the present, but we want to be well rounded.”
The $3 million project occurs during the conservation of Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington. Stuart’s full-length portrait of the first commander in chief, a prize of the gallery’s 22,812-piece collection, was removed from the gallery last year and has been undergoing analysis and conservation funded by Bank of America. The 1796 painting is expected to return to its central place when “America’s Presidents” opens.
Among the planned changes to the exhibition are a new entrance with graphics and wall text. Touch screens will be added to allow visitors to search related items in the museum’s collection, especially photos and works on paper, which are too fragile to display long-term. “The biography is here, but a lot of the history is elsewhere in the museum,” Ward said. “We’re trying to link it by providing material that will connect it both within this space and outside it.”
The exhibition will display portraits of every president while offering expanded displays of six leaders whose tenures were especially significant: Washington, Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
It was imperative to keep the presidents exhibition open during the gallery renovation because it draws big crowds, Ward said. The temporary show will be on view from March 24 through Sept. 4.
The museum tries to avoid partisanship in its presentation of the presidents, but it is frequently criticized. Visitors complain about one section — where a large Elaine de Kooning portrait of John F. Kennedy usually hangs directly across from a smaller portrait of Richard Nixon painted by Norman Rockwell. The de Kooning is now on loan to another institution.
“We get, ‘You must hate Jack Kennedy because you have this horrible abstract painting. My 12-year-old could have done that,’ ” Ward said. “Conversely, ‘You must be a Democrat because you have a tiny Richard M. Nixon and this giant Kennedy.’ ”
Visitors sometimes comment on the brief biographies with each portrait, Ward said. It is a difficult task to summarize careers — and say something about the portrait itself — in just 140 to 160 words, he said. “It’s like writing a pop song — you have to have a hook. You want to make someone stop and say, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ ”