New Exhibition: “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington”

The National Portrait Gallery recently opened “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington,” an exhibition of reproductions of original photographs, prints, drawings, and maps that document how the Civil War affected life in the District of Columbia. “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington” will be on view through January 25, 2015. Recently we spoke with the exhibition’s curator, National Portrait Gallery historian Jim Barber.

Black and white photo of the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln at the US Capitol.
Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln / by an unidentified artist / Photograph, 1831 / Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Q: This show’s concept is a bit different from the Portrait Gallery’s portraiture-driven shows. Could you tell our audience how the idea for this exhibition evolved?

Color photo of Jim Barber from the shoulders up, wearing a blue suit jacket and blue striped tie.
A: The circumstances of this special exhibition room determine in part the kinds of exhibitions that go on display there. The trend has been to use this space—shared by both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to explore the history of the building—the Old Patent Office—and to recall the history of the neighborhoods surrounding it.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War presents the opportunity to examine, through a selection of images, how the war affected the city.

Q: “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington” brings the Civil War quite literally to the doorstep of the Old Patent Office Building, the current home of the National Portrait Gallery. Do you have a favorite image of the 9th Street NW neighborhood?

A: A copy photograph of the Old Patent Office Building along F Street (below) is on display in the exhibition. One of the reasons I like this image is because it shows the tiered front steps that once led to the building’s main entrance on the second floor. The room just inside this entrance is now the space in which this exhibition is on view. It’s a light and elegant room that looks out onto the columned portico. The stacks of wooden barrels and horse-drawn covered wagons on F Street attest to the Civil War’s all-consuming need for supplies and conveyances.

Black and white exterior photo of the US Patent Office Building, with horse-drawn carriages in the street.
Patent Office, Washington DC / by Bierstadt Brothers / Photograph, C. 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Q: There are a lot of photo reproductions in this exhibition.  Can you tell us about the conditions that dictate the use of reproductions?

A: The light levels in this exhibition space are unusually high because of the windows and door. We use reproductions because original paper objects like photographs and prints are light-sensitive.

Q: There were hundreds, if not thousands, of key Civil War figures in Washington during the war, and many of those individuals are represented in the Portrait Gallery’s collection. Can you tell us a little about the connection between the NPG education mission and the images you selected for this exhibition?

A: An educational component of the exhibition, called “Faces behind the Places,” makes connections between famous personalities and city landmarks. Because the content is mostly centered around historic places in the city, we focused the selection of personalities upon people who had Civil War connections with these sites. For instance, on display is a picture of the Old Capitol Prison; the Portrait Gallery has in its collections an image of one of the prison’s most illustrious—or infamous—detainees, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Washington socialite and Confederate spy. For educational purposes, this was an ideal matchup!

Black and white photo of the Smithsonian Castle at center left and the US Capitol in the center background.
Smithsonian Institution Building or "Castle" / by Matthew Brady Studio / Photograph, 1863 / Smithsonian Institution Archives