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Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery announces new Director of History
Shaw is the first woman to hold this senior position at the National Portrait Gallery. Courtesy Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has appointed Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, undergraduate chair and associate professor of history of art at the University of Pennsylvania, as the museum’s new director of history, research and scholarship / senior historian. Shaw will work with the History, Curatorial, and Audience Engagement departments to strengthen the museum’s scholarly programs and be a thought leader on the connections between portraiture, biography and identity in America. Shaw is the first woman to hold this senior position at the National Portrait Gallery.

“I have long admired Gwendolyn’s scholarship and her particular focus on looking at contemporary issues through the lens of both history and portraiture,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Her research has spanned chronologies from the 17th centuries through today, merging interests in fine arts with those of popular culture. I am looking forward to having Gwendolyn help us think in fresh ways about our nation’s history as we reinstall our galleries in conjunction with a major upgrade to our lighting systems, and I know she will introduce audiences to larger social, historical, economic and political topics of conversation and debate.”

Shaw is already well known to the National Portrait Gallery. She is a current member of the PORTAL = Portraiture + Analysis advisory board, the museum’s scholarship and research arm; and in 2016 she served as the senior fellow and host scholar of the museum’s “Richardson Symposium: Racial Masquerade in American Art and Culture.” Recent books published by the Portrait Gallery feature her writing. For example, her essay “‘Interesting Characters by the Lines of Their Faces’: Moses Williams’s Profile Portrait Silhouettes of Native Americans” was written in 2018 for the exhibition catalogue “Blackout: Silhouettes Then and Now,” and she also penned “Portraiture in the Age of the Selfie,” the lead essay for the catalogue that accompanied the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

Shaw, who received her doctorate in art history from Stanford University, has focused for more than two decades on race, gender, sexuality and class in the art of the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2000, she was appointed assistant professor of history of art and African and African American studies at Harvard University, and in 2005, she began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 2012, she has served as the chair of the undergraduate program in the History of Art Department. Shaw has published extensively, and her most widely read titles include “Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker” (2004) and “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century.” She has curated several major exhibitions, notably, “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art,” for the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2015), and “Kara Walker: Virginia’s Lynch Mob and Other Works,” for the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey (2018).

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