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Identities on Display In the Smithsonian's First Ladies Hall

Mazzola, Emily (2023) Identities on Display In the Smithsonian's First Ladies Hall. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The First Ladies Hall, which sits at the heart of the National Museum of American History (NMAH)—part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC—is the only national exhibition and collection created by, for, and about women. Since its establishment in 1912, the Hall’s exclusively female curatorial staff have grappled with the challenges posed by the female embodiments of the American presidency. By foregrounding the Hall’s exhibition designs, particularly the mannequins and gowns that have remained the exhibition’s focus, I center issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class, revealing how the aesthetic programs of the First Ladies Hall have reflected the representational instabilities of women and politics in the United States for over a century.

Across three chapters, I explore the First Ladies Hall’s installations dating from 1915, 1955, 1992; an additional fourth chapter examines Jacqueline Kennedy’s construction of her public image as First Lady and the tensions that emerged when her incorporation into the Hall threatened to undermine her aesthetic legacy. Through the prism of art history, drawing on insights and methods from gender studies, critical race theory, anthropology, fashion studies, museum studies, and political science, I trace the cultural significance and political stakes of the First Ladies’ portrayals at the heart of the Smithsonian system.

This project is the first analysis of the First Ladies Hall to consider its displays complex visual compositions whose meanings can be illuminated through formal analysis. Central to my analysis are the efforts made to refine and modernize the exhibition’s mannequins—objects at the center of exhibition’s identity constructions. Bringing together photographs, drawings, curatorial schematics, gallery guides, and archival documents I provide a historical understanding of the First Ladies Hall’s problematic representational regimes, situating each curatorial reimagining within the changing values of visitors and the evolving needs of Washington’s political elite.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Mazzola, Emilyemm180@pitt.eduemm1800000-0002-5004-2204
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairSavage,
Committee MemberTaylor,
Committee MemberJosten,
Committee MemberBoylan,
Date: 6 September 2023
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 21 April 2023
Approval Date: 6 September 2023
Submission Date: 2 August 2023
Access Restriction: 2 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 2 years.
Number of Pages: 258
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History of Art and Architecture
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Museum Studies, Fashion History, Art History, American Studies
Date Deposited: 06 Sep 2023 18:59
Last Modified: 06 Sep 2023 18:59


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