The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These D.C. museum websites provide a fix of inaugural pomp and pageantry

The “America’s Presidents” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which boasts some of the most famous images of our chief executives, can be viewed online. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Tourists usually pack into Washington’s museums in the days leading up to inauguration, cooing over the first ladies’ gowns at the National Museum of American History or lining up to see the new president’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery. While most museums remain closed for the foreseeable future, virtual exhibitions allow viewers to enjoy the experience — and maybe learn something while they’re at it.

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Library of Congress

The Library’s vast holdings contain a wealth of inauguration-related items, such as handwritten presidential addresses; photos and etchings of ceremonies; and commemorative programs and admission tickets. The easiest way to sift through it all is by starting with “I Do Solemnly Swear,” the online version of a 2017 exhibition about inaugurations. Sorted by president, the page is packed with original source material, though there’s obviously more from later presidents than John Quincy Adams’ 1825 swearing-in. True presidential nerds can take a deep dive into the collections of presidential papers, where they’ll find inaugural addresses and a first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but also items like 13-year-old George Washington’s school exercise books and TheodoreRoosevelt’s personal diary, including the heartbreaking entry from the day he lost his mother, and then his wife, in the space of a few hours.

National Archives

Most visitors are aware that the National Archives safeguards our founding documents, but fewer know the National Archives and Records Administration’s other roles, such as administering the electoral college and overseeing presidential libraries. Through the latter, the Archives’ website has created an elections and inaugurations page with videos of presidential inaugurations over the last century: A silent clip of Warren G. Harding’s 1921 ceremony; a newsreel about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1945 swearing-in at the White House; and “The Day of the Oath,” a 1965 government documentary that starts with musical performances by Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing and turns back the clock to rare footage from the turn of the 20th century. The site also includes links to inaugural-related features at presidential libraries.

National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History is one of the most-visited museums in the U.S., and “The First Ladies,” long known for displays of gowns and china, is on the must-see list for many visitors to D.C. That’s why it’s a shame that the museum’s websites for “The First Ladies” and “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” look like they were optimized for World Wide Web browsers in the mid-2000s, with tiny images and little text. “The First Ladies,” which includes Michelle Obama’s 2009 gown, is easier to navigate if you click for the text version.

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National Portrait Gallery

Boasting “the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House,” the “America’s Presidents” exhibition features some of the most famous images of our chief executives, including Gilbert Stuart’s full-length “Landsdowne Portrait” of George Washington and George Peter Alexander Healy’s painting of a seated, contemplative Abraham Lincoln. The online exhibition is organized similar to the physical one, complete with thematic videos, and offers the chance to see multiple images of the same president from the gallery’s collection.

In November, before the Smithsonian museums closed again, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” a temporary exhibition looking at the role first ladies and White House hostesses have played in America, and telling their stories with paintings, sculptures, photographs and dresses. “The largest presentation of First Lady portraiture to take place outside of the White House” includes loans from the White House, State Department and presidential museums. While many will want to rush in to see this exhibition when the gallery reopens, the online presentation is easy to navigate, similar to “America’s Presidents,” and worth exploring.

White House Historical Association

If you want to read about the history of inaugurations and presidential transitions, the White House Historical Association is the only website you need. Looking for historical reflections on the shadow of war looming over Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration? Curious about the history of reviewing stands and public pomp and circumstance? It’s all there. Don’t overlook the “1600 Sessions” podcast — including an episode about how first families move in and, more importantly, out on Jan. 20 — and virtual events featuring authors and historians.