“Best of the Decade” with the National Portrait Gallery

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As a new decade approaches, we here at ATM thought it a good time to reflect on the best of the last—asking Smithsonian curators to weigh in on their favorite exhibits, career moments and newly-acquired pieces, since 2000.

To kick off this "Best of the Decade" interview series, we spoke with Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Henderson, 62, has researched and organized major exhibitions at the museum since 1975. Having earned her bachelor's and masters degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and her doctorate at the University of Virginia, she is an expert on the history of 20th and 21st century music, film, theater and American celebrity culture.

What were you working on at the turn of the last decade?

The Portrait Gallery closed in 2000 for a six-and-a-half year renovation. Like others on staff, I was very involved in rethinking and reinventing the gallery in this period—bringing new ideas and new approaches to the 21st century embodiment of NPG as a museum dedicated to portraying the personality of American history.

What was your favorite exhibit from the last ten years? Why?

My favorite exhibit in the last decade is a toss-up: first is "Kate: A Centennial Celebration,", an exhibition I did in our “One Life” gallery in 2007-08; and "Elvis at 21," an upcoming SITES exhibition funded by the History Channel and scheduled for 10 venues, opening at L.A.’s Grammy Museum and coming to NPG in October 2010. I loved the Hepburn because it was a creative challenge to capture a sense of her spirit over time, and her remarkable ability to control her own life and image over time. As a result of the show’s success, her estate has given NPG her record four Best Actress Oscars, which are on display with the portrait she described as her “favorite,” by Everett Raymond Kinstler. Elvis was one of the most satisfying exhibitions I’ve done because of the creative collaborations that shaped it, and the drop-dead gorgeous book, Elvis 1956, that accompanies it, published by Welcome Books.

What has been your favorite addition to the collections in the past decade?

My favorite additions to the collection have been the Katharine Hepburn portrait and her four Oscars, and Tony Bennett’s portrait of Duke Ellington, which Mr. Bennett presented to the Gallery in April 2009.

What has surprised you the most about how your job has changed since 2000?

Because my research field is popular culture, I have been pleasantly surprised by the increased general public interest in how the NPG is uniquely poised to explore such issues as celebrity. We have a terrific and always-growing image collection in popular culture, and we are tapped by a wide variety of people and other institutions for talks, tours and essays. The opportunities for collaborations have increased as well—recently, with the Kennedy Center, the University of Maryland and the Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center.

What anniversaries, events or people are you looking forward to celebrating or commemorating with an exhibit in the coming decade?

In October 2010, the "Elvis at 21" exhibition will open at the NPG, celebrating Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday. That same month, we are opening an exhibition entitled “One Life: Katharine Graham,” to spotlight the remarkable woman who headed the Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate crises, and whose Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir is a landmark in autobiography. And I’m just beginning to research an exciting new exhibition, "Dance in America," tentatively scheduled for 2013.

Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming weeks.

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