New Portrait Gallery Exhibit ‘Block by Block’ Points Out the People Behind DC’s Places

Clara Barton by Mathew B. Brady / c. 1865, Albumen silver print / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Elizabeth A. Hylton

If you’ve ever thought about following any of DC’s Heritage Trails — those historical markers sharing information about particular neighborhoods around DC — you’ll likely also love the new exhibit that opened last month at The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery which explores the namesakes of Washington, D.C.’s streets, avenues, neighborhoods, and other public spaces.

Block by Block: Naming Washington” features reproductions of 16 portraits, drawn mostly from the museum’s collection, that showcase the faces and biographies behind some of the city’s most familiar locations.

These are names that are part of the nation’s capital, used every day by tens of thousands of people, most of whom may never have stopped to wonder whose name they bear or why. Names like Clara Barton (Parkway), Malcolm X (Park), [David G.] Farragut (Square), or even Fort [Joseph Gilbert] Totten (Base/Metro Station).

“The naming of streets and places creates a living history, connecting past to present,” said the National Portrait Gallery’s curator of photographs, Leslie Ureña. “There is little doubt that naming a public space after a historical figure, in the nation’s capital no less, grants a degree of importance to those whose names have been chosen and, at times, evokes a reckoning with some of those eponyms and the legacies they leave behind. I hope ‘Block by Block’ prompts visitors to not only see D.C. a little differently but also to approach the streets and spaces in their own communities with a renewed sense of curiosity.”

“Block by Block: Naming Washington” is organized to reflect Washington, D.C.’s four quadrants. Other subjects represented in the exhibition are Henry Ward Beecher, William Ellery Channing, Frederick Douglass, Joseph Gales, Oliver Otis Howard, Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel Pierpont Langley, David D. Porter, William Henry Seward, Charles Sumner, and Raoul Wallenberg.

Original photographs are too sensitive to be on display — so this exhibit uses only reproductions — but will be on view in the museum’s second-floor Riley Gallery until Jan. 16, 2023.

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C.

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