“First Ladies at the Smithsonian” Exhibition Opens at National Museum of American History

December 8, 2008
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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open “First Ladies at the Smithsonian,” a display that showcases premier objects from the nearly century-old First Ladies Collection, on Friday, Dec. 19, as part of its reopening year celebration.

For decades, the First Ladies Collection has been one of the most popular attractions at the Smithsonian Institution. “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” serves as a bridge to the museum’s plans for an expanded exhibition on first ladies’ history set to open in a few years.

“The original first ladies exhibition of 1914 was the first at the Smithsonian to prominently feature women,” said museum director Brent D. Glass. “Today we continue to delve deeper into the contributions of first ladies to the presidency and American society.”

The exhibition features 14 dresses and more than 90 other objects, ranging from those of Martha Washington to Laura Bush and including portraits, White House china, personal possessions and related objects from the Smithsonian’s unique collection of first ladies’ materials. Among the dresses displayed in the exhibition are Grace Coolidge’s flapper-style evening dress, Jackie Kennedy’s yellow-silk gown worn to the Kennedy administration’s first state dinner in 1961 and Eleanor Roosevelt’s pink-rayon crepe gown, which she wore to the 1945 inaugural reception that was held in lieu of a ball during World War II.

“First Ladies at the Smithsonian” is made possible by major support from Biography Channel.

“This new exhibition provides an overview of the museum’s unparalleled collection and how it has evolved over the decades,” said Libby O’Connell, senior vice president of Corporate Outreach for AETN, Biography Channel’s parent company. “Biography Channel is honored to be a sponsor and give visitors a chance to see old favorites, some new acquisitions and other objects that have not been on display in recent years.”

The exhibition is divided into three main sections: the evolution of the First Ladies Collection, the tradition of the inaugural gown and a first lady’s contribution to the presidency and American society. The first section of the exhibition explores the establishment in 1912 of the “Collection of Period Costumes,” the first Smithsonian collection focused on women, which would become the foundation of the First Ladies Collection. The exhibition goes on to detail how the collection has been shown at the Smithsonian, starting with a display at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building in 1914 through the exhibition’s immediate predecessor, “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image” that was on view from 1992 to 2006. A large display case (50 feet long) of gowns and personal effects in this section will present visitors with a broad cross section of the collection.

The second section of “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” discusses the tradition of the first lady’s gown coming to the Smithsonian. It highlights Helen Taft’s 1909 white-silk chiffon inaugural gown, which was appliquéd with floral embroideries in metallic thread and trimmed with rhinestones and beads—the first to be presented by a first lady in 1912. Also showcased is the red Chantilly lace and silk satin inaugural gown with crystal beading worn by Bush in 2001. This section will answer some of the public’s most frequently asked questions about the collection.

The final section highlights some of the contributions first ladies have made as campaigners, hostesses, public policy advocates and the public faces for the presidential administrations.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).

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