Meet Amy Henderson, Historian at the National Portrait Gallery

Our guest blogger ponders the “spirits” of America’s heroes and their legacies as she walks the museum’s hallways

Men of Progress
Men of Progress Christian Schussele

Beginning today, ATM will bring you posts from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson, a cultural historian from the National Portrait Gallery read this month’s Smithsonian magazine story “Samuel Morse’s Reversal of Fortune” by David McCullough, and weighs in on her favorite historian and what Morse’s revolutionary invention hath wrought.

I’m a huge fan of historian David McCullough: When I read his works, I’m caught up in his prose parade of cinematic images. Subliminally, I hear his rich baritone voice, long-familiar from years when he hosted PBS’s “The American Experience.” Here’s someone who truly makes history come to life.

Without telling anyone—including me—McCullough stopped into the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) this spring with an Associated Press reporter. McCullough took the reporter on a whirlwind tour of the gallery to point out portraits of some of the illustrious characters in his new work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. The 77-year-old historian further endeared himself to me when I read in the piece that he careened through the Gallery like “an excited schoolboy,” and praised the museum as “one of the real treasures of the capital city, really of the country.”

Artist G.P.A. Healy is a McCullough favorite as he is mine. Healy went to Paris in 1834 as a struggling artist to learn his trade, and evolved into one of the preeminent portrait artists of his time. In his Portrait Gallery ramble, McCullough pointed out Healy portraits of key Civil War era Senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, along with Healy’s posthumous portrayal of Abraham Lincoln (a copy of which hangs in the White House).

Another McCullough headliner is artist-inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, whose youthful ambition was to be an artist who, according to McCullough, “would revive the splendor of the Renaissance and rival the genius of a Raphael or Titian.” Morse’s career never reached those heights, and he ultimately gave up art for technology. The telegraph was Morse’s revolutionary invention, and the Portrait Gallery has both the gleaming brass telegraph patent model on display, and a large canvas depicting Morse and other Men of Progress admiring the wondrous new device. In 1844 Morse telegraphed the first communication from the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the U.S. Capitol to the B & O Railway station in Baltimore. A plaque marking the moment hangs outside the Capitol building chamber today, inscribed with that historic message: “What Hath God Wrought?” With this invention, communications that once took days, weeks, and months were now virtually instant. Life changed.

These kinds of sudden and unanticipated consequences are what fascinate me most about history, culture, and technology. Before the telegraph, the millennia of human existence took place in “the great hush”—this is a wonderful phrase that writer Erik Larson, author of Thunderstruck, has used to describe the period just before Marconi’s invention of the wireless. The quiet before the storm.

Certainly in the past two centuries, the emergence of technology-fueled media has wrought vast change in everyday life: Each generation of new media—including motion pictures, recordings, radio, television and now digital media—has created new audiences with fresh iconic figures that reflect the times. A major consequence of media-generated culture in the 20th century was that it fueled the invention of a mainstream that broadcast shared information and experience. The heyday of the Hollywood studio system produced movie stars embraced by everyone—Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Fred and Ginger. The original two major radio networks, NBC and CBS, broadcast programming available at the touch of everyone’s dial: You could walk down a street in the 1930s or 1940s and listen without interruption to the shows of Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, or Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Post-war television was dominated by the same networks and similar formats, with the addition of ABC in the mid-1950s.

But things changed when Madison Avenue and economic prosperity created a culture of consumerism based on discrete economic markets. The meteoric rise of Elvis Presley in 1956 is a classic example of consumer marketing: Fueled by live television exposure and teenagers who, for the first time, had expendable pocket money, Elvis’s popularity was championed by those who wanted a hero of their own, not the Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra of their parents’ generation. A more recent consequence of media culture has been the fragmentation of audiences previously bound by shared interest and experience. Today, the exponential explosion of digital media has created a “narrowcast” world in which individual users of social media emerge as virtual stars of their own “network.” Very few figures have broad enough appeal to cross-over from one segment to another: Oprah? Lady Gaga?

Celebrities have walked the gallery’s halls from its inception. McCullough’s visit reminded me of other famous figures who have been drawn to the building. Originally built between 1838 and 1868 as the Patent Office Building, the historic footprint of this remarkable public space is enormous. It’s the third-oldest public building in Washington, after the White House and the Treasury. Charles Dickens visited the building in 1842 to view an exhibition of artifacts collected by a U.S. Exploratory Expedition to the Pacific. Walt Whitman worked as an orderly when it housed Civil War wounded. And Lincoln attended his Second Inaugural Ball here in March, 1865—only a month before he was assassinated.

Along with such visitors as Dickens, Whitman, Lincoln, and McCullough, what ghost-memories waltz along these corridors after midnight, what spirits remain. I thought of this when I saw a terrific revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Kennedy Center this summer. Follies is set as a reunion of retired showgirls who come back one final night to bid farewell to the theater where they had dazzled audiences in their youth. Each performer, now “of a certain age,” is confronted with a larger-than-life ghost of herself in her prime, bedecked in feathers and sequins and totally spectacular. In a museum dedicated to larger-than-life personalities, do spirits remain to remind us of earlier greatness? Would we see them even if they do? Or is it all “a great hush?”

A cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Amy Henderson specializes in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley to Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham. She is currently at work on a new dance exhibition entitled “One! Singular Sensations in American Dance,” scheduled to open in September 2013.

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