Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass

December 8, 2023 - November 26, 2026

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum have jointly purchased the tour de force “Lessons of the Hour” (2019) by artist and filmmaker Sir Isaac Julien. The moving image installation interweaves period reenactments across five screens to create a vivid picture of 19th-century activist, writer, orator and philosopher Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). Through critical research, fictional reconstruction and a marriage of poetic image and sound, Julien asserts Douglass’ enduring lessons of justice, abolition and freedom that remain just as relevant today.

This is the first joint acquisition by the two Smithsonian museums, which share a historic building in downtown Washington, D.C., and is the first work by Julien to enter each of the museums’ collections. “Lessons of the Hour” is an important addition to the museums’ growing time-based media collections, joining a range of innovative works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum with holdings representing eight decades of media art, and examples of an expanded definition of portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery.

Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass coincides with the exhibitions J.P. Ball and Robert S. Duncanson: An African American Artistic Collaboration, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through March 24, 2024 and One Life: Frederick Douglass, on view at the Portrait Gallery through April 21, 2024.

This presentation received Federal support from the Smithsonian Collections Care Initiative, administered by the National Collections Program, and from the Smithsonian Secretary and the Smithsonian National Board.

Co-organized by Saisha Grayson, curator of time-based media, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Charlotte Ickes, curator of time-based media art and special projects, National Portrait Gallery.

Trailer for Lessons of the Hour, 2019. © Isaac Julien, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro