HM - Mar. 2015 - Zavadil White

Partners in History

“The Plucky Portrait Gallery”
by Briana Zavadil White, Student and Teacher Programs
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
The title of this article, “The plucky Portrait Gallery!” is what The Washington Post Express called the National Portrait Gallery when it was awarded Best Smithsonian Museum for 2014 by the newspaper. The Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story. Can you guess our mission?  While the museum tells the story of America through the people who have shaped our country and culture, we also like to surprise our visitors with the unexpected. We highlight some of the twenty-first century’s most creative portrait artists in our “Portraiture Now” exhibitions, the “Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition,” held every three years and the only one of its kind in the United States, and finally our “Twentieth Century Americans” exhibition (which includes portraits created in the twenty-first century as well).  The Portrait Gallery showcases portraiture that goes well beyond paintings and sculptures, including mixed media, collage, 3-D installations, and time-based media portraits.  A donor to the NPG recently commented on the rich offerings of the museum by declaring,  “I wish we could teleport every single high school student in the country here at least once. The stories come alive when you are able to look at the faces of the people who made them.”
"Roosevelt" courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Franklin D. Roosevelt
by Douglas Granville Chandor
Oil on canvas, 1945
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
The plucky demeanor carries over to the education department, where portraits are the vehicle for introducing important Americans in the collection to visitors of all ages, through interactive student programs, professional development workshops for teachers, adult tours, adult and family programming, and outreach efforts. The introduction to the portraits is experienced through art, history, or biography, as the National Portrait Gallery is not an art museum or a history museum, but a museum of all three disciplines. Student and teacher programs at the Portrait Gallery use the art as a springboard for a conversation about history and biography.  We use the visual clues found in our portraits to learn about the individuals featured in the artwork.  The strategy of “reading” portraiture encourages the visual analysis of a piece of art, similar to the dissection of a historical or primary source document.
Whether on-line, at the museum, or back in the classroom, all educational offerings begin with the object, in this case the portrait. During a museum visit, Portrait Gallery educators facilitate a “Learning to Look” strategy as a way to begin “reading” the portrait.  Using inquiry, this technique hooks the participants, and soon a conversation between participants and educators is in full swing. We continue to direct all conversations back to the portrait and what was observed. As we begin to gather these clues we begin to understand what they may say about the sitter’s life and the era in which the person lived.  Details about these “Learning to Look” strategies – Jumping into a Portrait, Compare and Contrast, Puzzle, Thirty-second Look, Strike a Pose, What Am I Thinking? among others – can be found in our Reading Portraiture Guide for Educators:
"Rosa Parks" courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Rosa Parks
by Gene Herrick
Gelatin silver print, February 22, 1956
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Time and again the “Learning to Look” strategies have engaged and stimulated student groups, and we realized we needed to pass this on to educators.  We began offering evening, half-day, and full-day professional development workshops to local and national teachers, whereby Portrait Gallery educators modeled the “Learning to Look” strategies.  These highly active and engaging workshops follow the theory of see one, do one, teach one. After educators are introduced to the collection or special exhibition, National Portrait Gallery education staff model strategies for close looking and offer lessons related to exhibitions, closing with lesson plan development or sharing strategies for using portraits in the classroom.  The goal is clear: you are provided with the tools and strategies to take the portraits back into the classroom.
Building off the success of these workshops and a firm belief that the “Learning to Look” strategies have staying power, we wanted to do more for educators. Thus the summer teacher institutes were born.
"Sequoyah" courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
by J. T. Bowen Lithography Company, after Charles Bird King
Hand-colored lithograph, 1837
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In 2014, the Portrait Gallery began offering our “Learning to Look with the National Portrait Gallery” Summer Teacher Institutes, providing in-depth explorations of the Gallery’s collection, the looking strategies we use to engage with students and the educator resources available to teachers. We took our one-day model and expanded it to three days to allow time to really delve into the collection.  Institute participants gain expertise from museum educators, curators, and historians through gallery talks, discussions, and hands-on activities.  They learn to identify and analyze key components of a portrait and relate visual elements to relevant historical context and significance.  And most important, they make interdisciplinary connections among portraiture, social studies, and English/language arts.

As a museum educator facilitating the institutes, I walked away exhilarated by the conversations and ideas discussed, and the participants walked away with plenty of “a-ha” moments and a Portrait Gallery toolkit!  Last year’s workshops were so well received, we are hosting these workshops again this year, with each institute lasting four days!  The 2015 summer teacher institutes will be held June 29-July 2 and July 13-16.

Don’t take my word for it.  Here is what one teacher said after attending our 2014 institute:
I wanted to take the opportunity to say thank you for the opportunity to attend the Learning to Look Institute.  Over the course of the last 20 years I have been privileged to attend many professional development opportunities, however, not many have been as enlightening, engaging and enjoyable as this particular experience.  I have so many well developed ideas to take back to my classroom as well as loads of awesome materials! It was such an honor and a pleasure to share in the wealth of your experience as well as your esteemed colleagues.  Thank you…thank you…thank you!
Aimee S. Bergonia Pocomoke High School, Pocomoke City, MD

Interested in the Portrait Gallery’s “Learning to Look” Summer Teacher Institute? Visit to learn more and apply. Please direct queries to or 202-633-8503. The application deadline is April 10, 2015.
If you are interested in learning more about our student and teacher programs and classroom resources, please visit