National Portrait Gallery highlights the life of Oklahoma’s own Will Rogers
One Life: Will Rogers is the National Portrait Gallery’s first exhibition to be presented exclusively on its website. A special selection of portraits, broadsides, posters, paintings, drawings, and a sampling of videos illustrate the story of Rogers’s life from birth in Indian Territory through his death in an Alaskan plane crash. The exhibition can be accessed on any device. Once selected, images link the viewer with comprehensive captions exploring his career as a writer, a radio broadcaster, an actor on stage and screen, and a popular trick roper. His biography is featured in digital format, spanning vaudeville, silent films, “talkies,” radio, and newspaper—proving that he lifted the nation’s spirits during some of its most trying times, such as World War I and the recession that followed, as well as the Great Depression.
Two years ago, James Barber, now retired historian and curator of the National Portrait Gallery, visited the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore to see its collections. He chose images and historical documents that would become the final exhibit. “He spent several days here, selecting and viewing artifacts for what was to be a gallery exhibition,” said Jennifer Holt, Will Rogers Memorial Museum curator. However, due to the pandemic, the project was postponed one year. Eventually, it was determined the material would become an online exhibition, which was launched on June 25, 2021.
Since 2006, the National Portrait Gallery has held 17 exhibitions in the series “One Life,” which is dedicated to the biography of a single figure. “It is certainly an honor to have Will Rogers’s life depicted on such a prestigious site,” said Tad Jones, Will Rogers Memorial Museum’s director. “The new format allows the viewing audience to expand worldwide while the exhibit can be read in two languages.” The exhibit is available on the National Portrait Gallery’s website until January 30, 2022.
This exhibition is cocurated by retired National Portrait Gallery historian and curator James Barber and historian Kate Clarke Lemay. This exhibition has been funded in part by the Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer Endowment Fund and a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.