The National Portrait Gallery really is worth seeing, but not so much for what's there, but for how and why it's there. If a picture's is worth 10,000 words, as Lao-tzu would have it, this place outranks the Library Of Congress by a solid four orders of magnitude ...

Take the bust of Winfield Scott for example. The name alone raises hackles here in North Carolina, but in our Nation's Capital, his plaque mentions nothing about why that might be so. A distinguished General? Yes, he was. He was also the chap that Marty Van Buren saddled with the job of marching the Cherokee off their lands in what has become known as the Trail Of Tears. Not a mention of it, though.

Andrew Jackson's famous and probably apocryphal comment that "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" refers to the supreme court decision that upheld Cherokee title to their lands. No mention of this either, but then Old Hickory did have a lot of other things to be proud of. Ignoring the Supreme Court isn't really that big a deal now, but I like to think it was once.

Back to the museum:

Whose portrait hangs in silence across from John Marshall, each looking at the other and probably wondering about the Bowdlerized history? Sequoyah, of course, creator of the Cherokee syllabary. There's more to this exhibit than meets the eye. History, historiography and the occasional alteration, but someone here knows. The pictures flow from one to the next, each telling a story, hiding a secret, and hinting at what it might be: "Look closer", they say, "There's more than we can show you in just one night."

Jimmy Carter is painted standing, looking both serious and compassionate facing -- of all people -- FDR. Not who I would have guessed, but I suppose the painting might have flinched if they hung it across from Ron Reagan, who is drawn beautifully. Carter gets credit in his little bio for Camp David but, since the Palestinians got the same raw deal as the Cherokee, maybe they should have placed Carter opposite John Marshall instead. I'm sure Sequoyah wouldn't mind. He looks like an accommodating sort of scholar, and one who would appreciate Jimmy being the only 20th century US President to not fire a shot in anger. It takes far more strength to hold a punch than to deliver one; especially if you're the biggest kid on the block, which is one reason I like Mr. Carter. He's an honest man, and a fellow Georgia Tech engineer. He deserves a better painting -- like the absolutely breathtaking one of Lincoln that makes him look fantastic; like he's been working out and avoiding productions of Our American Cousin, which is a great trivia question answer to "What was the name of that play, anyway?"

The Portrait Gallery has sections on modern art, which I have yet to see, early photographs, and a room on Walt Whitman that I could spend an hour in. OK, that I DID spend an hour in. Whitman and Lincoln, Carter and FDR, other Americans both famous and obscure. There's an oil of a older black woman whose name escapes me. What caught me was that the painting is so good, I thought it was a photograph. I had to look closely at the details for the brushwork to tell it wasn't, and I'd still like to meet that lady. Her eyes held a quiet power and an intensity that spoke more than any written biography. That picture's worth 50,000 words, at least.

Private jokes are scattered throughout too, as they tend to be when clever people do things. They just can't help themselves: a beautiful oil painting of a man and his Ducati 998 motorcycle with a few tools on the ground -- including a 7/8" combination wrench. Non-bikers won't get the joke that the Duke is Italian and the bolts are all in millimeters ... It's little things like this that say "Look closer".

People are always telling me that Museums are boring, that they're nothing but old books, bones and pictures. True enough, if all you do is look at old books, bones and pictures. Talk to the docents; talk to the curators and fellow museum goers and you'll find out all the little bits that make this Gallery more than just a venerable My Pictures folder. Just like your pics, these have stories to tell.

@ Copyright 2007 Greg Richter / WTF Music