Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thinking Field Trips: A Visit to the National Portrait Gallery

Weirdest thing.

I take a five day break from blogging (my first break since last February), and I actually wind up with MORE page views and readers than I have all year. Hmm. Maybe I should take breaks more often.

I use the term "break" lightly, as anyone else out there with three little kids will understand.

Yesterday we took the tykes to D.C.

Visited the National Gallery of Art and the Portrait Gallery. I used to live in the District and I can't begin to count the number of hours I've spent at the NGA; but the Portrait Gallery has been closed for the longest time as it was undergoing extensive renovations. This was the first chance I've had to visit since the re-opening.

And I'm glad I went.

Two exhibits in the Portrait Gallery present a perfect opportunity for students to learn about the nature of biography and representation through visual images.

The first is the collection of portraits of American presidents. You can browse through the images on the Smithsonian's site. On the website, each portrait is accompanied by a biographical sketch of the president's term; in person, audio and video recordings bring the leaders to life.

And there's something for everyone. Personally, I liked the audio collection of FDR's Fireside Chats. One of my sons liked the lifemasks of Lincoln; the other thought Andrew Jackson looked like a vampire.

The second exhibit was the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Situated directly across the hall from the portraits of presidential power, the portrait competition exhibits the work of all those anonymous Americans whose portraits are no less distinct nor distinctive. The whole exhibit feels like the visual equivalent of a Terkel book; that is to say: these portraits represent a peoples' history in their "own words".

Right now, my boys are in the dining room drawing portraits of one another. Learning by looking and by engaging with looking. All to often a skill we fail to appreciate in the classroom.

While most field trips to Washington, D.C. involve a visit to the NGA or the Air and Space Museum, I encourage you to walk off the Mall a little bit and seek out all the faces and stories waiting for you at the National Portrait Gallery. Or visit the gallery online and see what the digital realm has to say about the ways in which we present ourselves and each other.

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