National History Day at the National Portrait Gallery

Welcome to the National Portrait Gallery’s webpage for National History Day! At the National Portrait Gallery, we’re excited to help teens prepare for their National History Day projects by providing access to our collections and resources that support their research and final project. Below, you’ll find information about our collections, key words to deepen your understanding of our collection, research tips, and more!

Key Words and Citations

Learn the key terms that are used to describe a work of art in a museum:

Portrait: A likeness or image of a person that is created by an artist

Museum label: A written explanation of an artwork (installed next to the artwork)

Image: A picture of something or someone

Sitter/Subject: The person (or people) in a portrait

Symbol: Something representing something else by association; objects, characters, or other concrete representations of abstract ideas, concepts, or events

To learn more key vocabulary terms please visit our Key Terms Guide

How to cite a work of art

MLA Style:  To cite a piece of artwork, such as a photograph, painting, or sculpture, apply the following MLA guidelines: Artist’s full name (last name first), complete title of the artwork in italics, date of creation, medium (i.e., oil painting, sculpture, photograph), name of institution that currently houses the piece and location of institution.

daguerreotype with a gold frame of a black man



Citation: Unidentified Artist, Frederick Douglass, 1856, quarter-plate ambrotype, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Primary and Secondary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document or object that was created by an individual or group as part of their daily lives. Primary sources include birth certificates, photographs, diaries, letters, embroidered samplers, clothing, household implements, and newspapers.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is a summary, second-hand account, or analysis of events created by someone who did not witness the event, but may have read or heard about it.  Secondary sources include books or articles written on a topic, artworks depicting an event, letters or diaries recounting a version of events told to the author by another source.

Depends on the questions you may ask:

-Tip: the age of object does not determine whether it’s a primary or a secondary source

How to tell if an artwork is a primary or secondary source 


ID of a young Japanese woman
Unidentified Artist / Ruth Aiko Asawa /1943,Gelatin silver print / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the children of Ruth Asawa

Example of a Primary Source: Ruth Asawa Camp ID

Why is this a primary source?

  • Hint: It’s a government issued document and an object that was used in Ruth Asawa’s daily life during her time in an incarceration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.
group of men in a formal setting
John Christen Johansen /Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919 / 1919, Oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of an anonymous donor, 1926

Example of a Secondary Source: Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

Why is this a secondary source?

  • Hint: It’s an artist’s interpretation of a real-life event.

For more information, take a look at “What is a Primary Source?” from our colleagues at the SI Archives

Research Resources and Tips

To search our collections, visit:

Tips to refine your search:

  • Are there key people within your topic? Try searching their names.
  • Use the tabs on left hand side of page to refine your search further.
  • Are you looking within a specific time period? Use the date refining tab on the left.

screen shot of a search page

  • Try keywords related to the sitter’s name (full name), organization, profession, or a specific event.
  • Use quotation marks around your search to get results that are an exact match for your search.
NPG and Other Smithsonian resources