A Conversation with Historian Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson, wearing feather boa and with replica Oscar in her hand

At the end of July, museum historian Amy Henderson will leave the National Portrait Gallery after serving the institution for more than three decades. In her time at the Portrait Gallery, she has been a part of some of the museum’s great projects, and it feels natural enough to say that Amy carries no small amount of Broadway and Hollywood in her blood. Recently, we spoke to her about some of the highlights of her years here.

Q: Can you tell our readers why you came to the nation’s capital?

A: I came to DC to work for the Portrait Gallery; otherwise I would’ve been teaching Jeffersonian history at university. When I came here in the 1970s, it was touted as a New Age of museums—Dillon Ripley was secretary of the Smithsonian, Carter Brown was the director at the National Gallery of Art. It was the blockbuster era, and I was involved with an amazing string of them, beginning with “Champions of American Sport” in 1981.

2014 is an exciting time as well, with traditional cultural institutions being confronted with enormous change. The great challenge is to incorporate fascinating new ways to present and interpret culture for twenty-first-century audiences.

Exhibition gallery, with walls painted bright lime green
View of "Dancing the Dream" exhibition

Q: You have met some pretty amazing people in your time here at the National Portrait Gallery. Can you walk us through some of your more memorable experiences?

A: Among the moments I enjoyed the most were getting to know Katharine Hepburn, circa 1988–94; interviewing Ginger Rogers for the exhibition “Red, Hot, and Blue”; having Liza Minnelli and Kay Thompson sing with a boombox of tapes of “Mama” (Judy Garland) at Liza’s apartment; taking Gregory Peck through “Red, Hot, and Blue”;  and taking Warren Buffett through “One Life: Katharine Graham.”

Q: You have also worked on some high-profile projects—exhibitions that have received much positive attention. What was your favorite exhibition—if you can pick one—and why?

A: I don’t have one favorite. I loved “On the Air” (1988) because it taught me so much about twentieth- century media history. I also got to work with Portrait Gallery Commissioner Frank Stanton, who invented CBS with William Paley and who became the godfather of that show. I also really enjoyed working on “Red, Hot, and Blue” (1996) with Dwight Bowers of NMAH—what a time we had interviewing people and then taking people like Carol Channing and Dame Diana Rigg through the exhibition!

Exhibition gallery, with artifacts releating to Katharine Hepburn
View of "One Life: KATE, A Centernnial Celebration" exhibition on Katharine Hepburn

Of course, I loved the Hepburn show—we have her Oscars now! The Graham show—working with Liz Hylton, Katharine Graham’s right hand, was wonderful. And “Elvis”—Warren Perry and I had a great time putting the King into many buildings. My last exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, “Dancing the Dream,” was a great way to wrap up my exhibition philosophy—“scholarship dipped in dazzle.”

Q: Where will you go and what will you do next?

A: I am staying in DC at my great art moderne apartment next to the Zoo with my cats Ernie and Bert. I’ll be researching a book on media and culture at the Library of Congress, consulting on projects that deal with history and culture, and practicing classical guitar.

Red carpeted hallway
View of "Dancing the Dream" exhibition
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