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National Portrait Gallery Presents “Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped Environmentalism”

On View Oct. 20–Sept. 2, 2024

Credit: Julie Packard by Hope Gangloff, acrylic on canvas, 2019. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; funded by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Board of Trustees. Copyright Hope Gangloff.
Credit: Julie Packard by Hope Gangloff, acrylic on canvas, 2019. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; funded by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Board of Trustees. Copyright Hope Gangloff.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery will present “Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped Environmentalism,” opening Oct. 20. The exhibition will explore the perspectives of key individuals—scientists, politicians, activists, writers and artists—whose work shifted and shaped the environmental movement in the United States from the mid-19th century to today. This unique look into the development of environmentalism combines portraiture, visual biography and the sitters’ own words to recognize the enduring impacts of prominent environmental thought leaders. “Forces of Nature: Voices That Shaped Environmentalism” is guest curated by Lacey Baradel, former science historian at the National Science Foundation, and will be on view through Sept. 2, 2024.

To complement the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery and the Monterey Bay Aquarium will co-host a panel discussion featuring some of today’s leading environmentalists, some of whom are also in the exhibition, including Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, environmental justice warrior, Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford and founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Dolores Huerta, labor and environmental activist; Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and ocean conservationist; and Dorceta Taylor, a professor at Yale University, author and a leading environmentalist. The free event will be held Nov. 14 in the museum’s McEvoy Auditorium from 6 to 7 p.m. NPR is the media partner.

From early discussions about the conservation versus the preservation of natural resources to ongoing debates about responsible business practices and calls for environmental justice, the exhibition showcases some of the ongoing threads of environmental thought. It traces these themes from the transcendentalist writings of Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, to Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and her current project “What is Missing?”

Through a series of more than 25 portraits, the exhibition explores the efforts of activists as well as critics who utilized their expertise in science, politics, literature and art to spark discussion of one of the central questions: What is people’s relationship to the rest of the natural world? Subjects include Dennis Banks, John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, George Washington Carver, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Maya Lin, Thomas Lovejoy, Dixie Lee Ray, Russell Means, Theodore Roosevelt, Carl Sagan, Henry David Thoreau and more. “Forces of Nature” will explore the impact of these figures on public perceptions of the natural world and contextualize their individual significance within this important yet deeply complicated history. It also highlights the ways artists used portraiture to help define the public image of these individuals.

“This uniquely relevant exhibition illustrates how the arguments for and against the U.S. environmental movement have evolved over time,” said Mindy Farmer, historian and consulting curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “Every portrait features a quotation, allowing each individual to speak for themselves. We hope to help visitors find their own voice in this ongoing debate.”

“Forces of Nature: Voices that Shaped Environmentalism” has been made possible through the support of Rep. Doris Matsui and Roger Sant.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors, and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.      

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at 

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