They say “don’t judge a book by its cover”. The cover may not be all that is important, however, walking through the museums of Washington D.C. it’s clear that the cover does matter. In both the National Museum of American History and the National Portrait Gallery, the way in which information is presented is crucial to the message the exhibit is trying to send.

The two exhibits of the “American Presidency” and the “First Ladies” differ greatly in their visual rhetoric and their differences make the viewers feel different ways. As you enter the presidential exhibit, patriot music echoes around the oval-shaped room. The blue and red walls show pride in America and the sharp angled signs depict clarity and importance. The images around the room are realistic and documents cover the walls. The sophistication of the exhibit demonstrates the importance of the presidency. Without reading a single word or analyzing a single photograph, patriotism is expressed and the respect intended for presidents is depicted. On the other hand, walking into the “First Ladies” exhibit a very different atmosphere is created. The large images of the women, perfectly dressed and airbrushed, show their beauty and poise. Throughout the exhibit, the focus is on aesthetics and the changes in beauty standards, not on the political evolution. The presidents are shown as respected and powerful and the first ladies are shown as beautiful and graceful. A passerby won’t stop and recognize the significant impacts a first lady made but they might stop and recognize an elegant dress they once wore. The presentation of information makes the viewer interpret the display in a certain way that is chosen by the creators of the exhibit.

In a similar manner, the portraits vary greatly between the presidents. The use of color, shape, angle, wardrobe, and background were all used to make a different impression. For example, the differences between Abraham Lincoln’s portrait by George P. A. Healy and that of George W. Bush allow the two men to be perceived differently. The painting of Lincoln is simply the president in a suit in a wooden chair. The background is black and the ground is red. His facial expression is serious. Overall the portrait gives off formal mood. In contrast, the portrait of George W. Bush is him sitting on a couch in a home with a vase of flowers behind him. He dresses professionally but causally and sits in a relaxed position. The amicable smile on his face is welcoming and kind. The mood of this portrait, very different from that of Lincoln, is warm and relaxed. Between these two portraits, the evolution of art is very evident. It’s clear that Americans originally wanted to portray their presidents as powerful and serious, then they evolved into displaying presidents as amiable and good-natured.

The details and information behind a presentation may hold the true facts but the appearance of these exhibits is crucial to the way in which audiences perceive it. The museums of D.C. exemplify this idea through visual presidential rhetoric.

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