I recently visited a fascinating exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. The museum itself is a history place in that the building it shares with the National Portrait Gallery is one of the most historic and beautiful buildings in Washington, D.C. The Old Patent Office, third oldest public building in the city, sits north of the National Mall on Eighth and F Streets. Begun in 1836, construction of all four wings was not completed until 1868 when it became the largest office building in the United States, covering several city blocks. Built to house the United States Patent Office, the Greek Revival structure has seen its share of national history.
In 1840 the first wing opened and the enormous vaulted room on the third floor was quickly dubbed the “National Gallery.” Some claimed it was the largest exhibition hall in America and for a time, before the Smithsonian existed, it was known as a “museum of curiosities” and almost 100,000 visitors per year came to wonder at its eclectic displays: the Declaration of Independence, relics owned by George Washington, including his Continental army tent, a piece of Plymouth Rock, portraits of Indian chiefs commissioned by the War Department, specimens from expeditions to the Pacific, and items brought back from the Commodore Perry visit to Japan.
The building served as a hospital for about a year and a half during the Civil War. Almost three thousand beds lined its corridors accommodating wounded soldiers. President and Mrs. Lincoln visited the troops, along with poet Walt Whitman who described the scene: “that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers… I went there many times.” He brought small gifts, read to the soldiers, played games and wrote letters for them. Another famous American, Clara Barton, had come to Washington from Massachusetts in 1854 and was hired by the patent commissioner as his confidential clerk. Her association with the building continued during the war when she tended the wounded there. She went on to promote life-saving medical care on the battlefields of the War, later founding the American Red Cross.
President Lincoln held his second inaugural ball in the large room on the third floor, now the Lincoln gallery and filled with modern pieces from the national collection.
Anyway, it is one of my favorite buildings in Washington, but I digress.
I visited Annie Leibovitz: Pilgrimage, a temporary exhibition on display through May 20 when it will begin a national tour. Leibovitz is one of America’s most well-known photographers, known for meticulously staged and lit, and sometimes daring, portraits of celebrities. I was drawn to the show because it’s a small, intimate look at some of her favorite places, most of them historic. They include the homes of Thomas Jefferson, Elvis, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Emily Dickinson. She offers a glimpse of Jefferson’s garden, of Elvis’s grave and of O’Keeffe’s paints. Leibovitz’s curiosity with her subjects is clear and the 64 photographs provide an insightful look at American history places.
Check out the exhibition website: http://www.americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/leibovitz/
or a Washington Post review http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/exhibits/annie-leibovitz-pilgrimage,1220457/critic-review.html