National Portrait Gallery /American Art Museum

In the eighth grade, I researched Sam Houston for one of my classes. As a final part of the project, we spent a class period acting out the person we researched. I had never considered anyone I studied that deeply until I was assigned that project.

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has a program it has run for the past 10 summers that gives high school students the same opportunityTeenagers who have applied and are selected to work for Portraits Alive come and study someone who has a portrait in the museum. The students first choose someone, then research that person without relying on the information that the museum provides on the plaque beside the portrait.

Students then write monologues about the subject of the portrait they’ve chosen. And they don’t just recite the monologue. They wear costumes to look like the people they’ve studied and perform the monologue for visitors touring the museum. Students put a lot of work into this. And after three weeks of presenting to tour groups, they rewrite their script, focusing on a new theme or approach. So not only are they learning research methods and performance skills, they are also learning how to review and strengthen their own work. When they perform, they present themselves alongside the portraits they studied, bringing the image beside them to life.

This project involves more than memorizing basic facts about the portrayed person. Not just anyone gets their portrait displayed at famous museums. Students in the program learn why the people they’re researching got their portraits on the wall. They also each find a personal connection to the person in the portrait. Some of the actors even come to resemble those they choose to perform after studying them in such detail. Christopher Schelb, a student portraying poet Allen Ginsberg, became known among his fellow teens as just “Ginsberg.”

The best part of this program is that not only do the students learn about the power of a new portrayal of the past, but the visitors do as well. Those who see the performance are encouraged to think about history that they may have forgotten about or that they have never encountered before.

Did You Know?

The smallest portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London is about the size of your thumbnail. Made of enamel on gold, it’s a picture of Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans in the seventeenth century.

Image credit: Difference engine