LIANE HANSEN, host:
Five years ago, the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington scored a triumph by raising more than $20 million to purchase Gilbert Stewart's 1796 Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. But the painting of America's first president has not had a place to call home. In 2000, a top to bottom renovation began of the Patent Office building, a mid-19th century landmark that fills a double-sized city block and houses the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both parts of the Smithsonian Institution.
The renovations are complete. Next weekend both museums reopen for the public, and Gilbert Stewart's portrait of Washington has a new and permanent home. Late last week, Marc Pachter, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, met us at a side door of the Greek revival Patent Office Building to give us a sneak preview of his museum, while workers were still putting the finishing touches on the building.
Mr. MARC PACHTER (Director, National Portrait Gallery): I should say right away that I've waited six and a half years to be able to welcome people to this building.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: Longtime coming?
Mr. PACHTER: Oh, long time.
HANSEN: All right if I can call you Marc?
Mr. PACHTER: Please.
HANSEN: Lead the way.
Mr. PACHTER: Okay. They give you a (unintelligible) here. A week ago, you would have bet really serious money that we wouldn't be done, but we are.
HANSEN: Oh this is magical. You're just going to open these doors for us?
Mr. PACHTER: Magic. Okay, what we're going to do know is we're going to go to the G Street entrance. The only way I'll situate us, metaphorically and historically as well as actually, is that we are in the third oldest federal building in the city, after the Capitol and the White House.
And what is a little miraculous about is origins is the fact that in this invented city - and I think we compete only with St. Petersburg for the title of first invented city - in this invented city, when Pierre L'Enfant designed it, he knew that he'd have to put the chief executive somewhere. He knew he'd have to put the parliament - Congress, as it turned out - somewhere. But he didn't know what to put in the third great symbolic space. And if the traffic patterns of today did not obscure it, you would see that we were at the top of an isosceles triangle. So we are in the third space.
Now, I'm not usually so schoolmarmish about this, but I'm going to ask you what most nations would have put in that third space, once they located head of state and parliament.
HANSEN: The courts.
Mr. PACHTER: Oh, well, that's not a bad guess. But actually, it would have been a church, a mosque, a temple, to show truly, or maybe for the record, the spiritual connections of the state. Congress being Congress took some time to kind of work out the actual use of the space and they came up with another idea. And that idea, I think, was brilliant.
And they said, really the spiritual anchor of the state will be the spirit of invention, of a secular society. So let us build the Patent Office building, which is the historic landmark name for this building. And that would be then - and this is the phrase of the 19th century - a temple of invention.
So it was built to be spiritual. It was built to be a display space, so all the working stiffs in the government bureaucracy would have been on this first level where we are now. The second floor is the Piano Noble(ph). We'll get there, of course. And then, the third floor is the grandest space of all. And therein would be displayed the models which represented that spirit of invention.
HANSEN: So this is a lovely introduction on the first floor.
Mr. PACHTER: Right, but what I'd like to do now - again, if you'll indulge me - is go to the F Street entrance to illustrate, literally and metaphorically, the fact that we're very interested, first of all, in the way American society has developed a conversation about itself, through the great figures. So on the one hand, that's about the sitters, and that's always our primary emphasis. But by the same token, we're very interested in the whole history of depiction.
HANSEN: We have just walked through these long, cool corridors.
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
HANSEN: Looking outside the door, it's very steamy in Washington and the experience here is very cool. But I can imagine a visitor coming in...
Mr. PACHTER: This is the way the visitor will mostly come in, from a hot day, into these cool halls. And we have done something in the life of the portrait gallery, which is revolutionary, to underscore our interest in the present and the future linking to the past, not simply walking directly into the past.
So while we see Benjamin Franklin beckoning us, a long way down the corridor - and we will get to him soon - the first thing we confront is our own time. And we see it in two stages. One is Americans now, which signifies our intention now to take in living figures.
And so in these first two rooms, you will see a number of things. First of all, as we walk to one of the rooms filled with contemporary figures of our day, first of all, you will see a chartreuse color in the room that will not remind you, as other aspects did, of the 19th century. So once you are in the various galleries, they are meant to be doused in colors that suggest their own time and surrounded by figures who are very much among us.
This is one of our really one of our really priced acquisitions: Phillip Glass, the composer, by Chuck Close. We're also in front now of David Hockney. It's a self portrait. And the first question that many visitors have already when they see this is, wait a second, David Hockney isn't American. And the National Portrait Gallery is about presenting great figures in America, past and present. And the answer is, there are no citizenship requirements.
The point is, did they have a fundamental impact on a part of American life? And you cannot speak of California art without David Hockney, who's basically invested most of his artistic life there. So David Hockney does not have U.S. on his passport, but he does on his spirit.
HANSEN: And the colors of the different portraits, they contrast...
Mr. PACHTER: Yes, they...
HANSEN: ...they complement, they clash.
Mr. PACHTER: ...we hope pop out.
HANSEN: They do pop out.
Mr. PACHTER: That's...
HANSEN: And it's photographs, it's multimedia...
Mr. PACHTER: Exactly, all the various things. There' Bill T. Jones.
HANSEN: The dancer, Bill T...
Mr. PACHTER: The dancer...
HANSEN: ...a photograph. And Laurie Anderson...
Mr. PACHTER: Laurie Anderson.
HANSEN: ...which is - and they're flanking the doorway out of modernity.
Mr. PACHTER: So as we enter another one of our contemporaries galleries, Americans Now, we see a few juxtapositions which are meant to be startling, because, by the way, no age, including our own, of course, is a neat chapter. You know, we tend to think from the way we read history and our times, that all the politicians are talking to each other and all the artists are over here and so forth. But of course it's a jumble of different lives, different intentions, different fames.
And so we juxtapose, as the world is juxtaposed. So here we have Tom Wolfe. He's looking rather elegant, as he always is, in a characteristic white suit. And here we have looming sort of brilliantly and with an uncompromised look, Toni Morrison, the great African-American novelist. And as they say, they really take a very different view of life and circumstance and they remind us of the variety of our society.
So I think by now the visitor is somewhat startled by the fact that it is not their grandmother's portrait gallery, that we are really very much in our own day. But the portrait gallery never forgets that it is established also to connect us to our past.
Once we leave the political establishment of our society - and we are one of the only societies on earth where you can say we began with a political construction out of which emerged all of our other constructions - we then enter another era.
Now, this is my favorite place because it does so many things that we want to do. First of all, it introduces the most revolutionary form of portraiture: photography. These are the daguerreotypes, which were, as you know, one-off images. So it's a transition between paintings that are one-off images and photography, which are multiple.
And here we have - the greatest problem that you face with daguerreotypes is lighting. These are literally jewels in jewel-like cases, which is literally what you will see, because there will be velvet on one side and so forth. And so you will begin to see, in the first time that others would have been able to see in this form, such figures as Stonewall Jackson, Clara Barton. You actually see - this is not mediated - you actually see what Clara Barton - who by the way, worked in this building as the first full-time female civil servant.
HANSEN: You've mounted them at a slant behind...
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
HANSEN: ...glass. And they're arranged like a picture frame. But there's a small pinhole of light that hits each face...
Mr. PACHTER: Right.
HANSEN: ...so that we can make out the characteristics...
Mr. PACHTER: Exactly.
HANSEN: ...of Clara Barton...
Mr. PACHTER: Normally, very hard to do, because it's really glass.
Mr. PACHTER: Okay, well, let's - let me just point out just one more thing. This is, again, one of our most precious objects: John Brown, daguerreotype done by the only significant - that we know of - African American daguerreotypist, Augustus Washington. We did a show about him. But this, again, there is the obsessed John Brown, and the conversation you could have just with this figure could go on for an hour.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Mr. PACHTER: Okay, now we come to the National Portrait Gallery on the second floor, and this is our America's Presidents space. That is the Lansdowne portrait that is just before us.
HANSEN: This is where George lives now.
Mr. PACHTER: This is where George lives. Gilbert Stuart was commissioned in the last year of Washington's presidency to do this portrait as a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne. That's why it's called the Lansdowne Portrait. It was also a gesture of Anglo-American friendship, and within it is summarized the American presidency. The big question of the time, of course, is will we have freedom? Well, we thought we would, but would we have order too? That was the big question. So what we have is a European environment, not any real one, giving a sense of hey, we weren't just born yesterday. We were in one sense, but not in another sense. We are connected to the past.
(Soundbite of elevator)
HANSEN: Did you have to redo the elevators too?
Mr. PACHTER: Oh, everything. Everything on the floor was either pulled up or recreated for this spot. Everything was taken apart. It's just amazing. That's how you make a 19th century building a 21st century building.
Okay, if we go this way and we enter...
HANSEN: It's like entering another century, going through this doorway. So this is the culmination of the spaces we've seen on the first and second floor. Now, we are in utterly elaborate wide bau relief...
Mr. PACHTER: Don't you feel your spirits soaring?
Mr. PACHTER: Yes, you're meant to soar.
HANSEN: Vaulted archways.
Mr. PACHTER: Right. So that's the feeling - I'm going to show you just one more gallery here and then pretty much you will have seen the National Portrait Gallery in its reborn state.
I think it's appropriate that we finish our walking tour in what we generally call the Rights Room, because while, in general, we have allowed the jumble of interacting lives in one time, sometimes we do look at a theme in particular and we wanted to deal with the still open question of American justice, that one - the other one that was left open after the Union was resolved by the Civil War.
And so we have the many voices asking more of our democracy than it provided when they began to ask. And of course African Americans are very critical to this era. They really set the tone for that insistence on rights. How could we not have Martin Luther King presiding over this room with his I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character? I wouldn't mind ending our tour on that note.
HANSEN: Marc Pachter, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, thank you so much for walking us through the new space and showing us all the art contained within.
Mr. PACHTER: I enjoyed it.
(Soundbite of Martin Luther King)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING: When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.
HANSEN: There's a link to a detailed visual tour of the new and improved National Portrait Gallery at our Web site, NPR.org. Our feature was produced by Jesse Baker and recorded by Alexandra Gardner.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.