When I first heard about the “American Cool” art exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I  scoffed at the idea of “who actually gets to define what’s cool?” The American Cool exhibit is an art exhibit which highlights some of America’s most notorious and not so notorious American cultural icons.

The first exhibition room is titled “The Roots of Cool : before 1940.” This room will take you back to a moment in time that most of us only see on the History Channel. We are formally introduced to the likes of better known people like Mae West, an American actress, playwright, and sexual vixen whose career spanned across seven decades. Another cultural icon, Zora Neale Hurston, the American folklorist and anthropologist, is best known as the prolific author of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as, the magnificent Bessie Smith, who was the most influential blues singer in American history and the first major feminist voice in American Music. Also featured in this first exhibit room was the beautiful actress Greta Garbo, who was one of the biggest stars at MGM studios and 1920′s legend Bix Beirderbecke who is best known for creating the jazz ballad sound which today is commonly referred to as smooth jazz.

Some of America’s coolest figures had a deeper story to tell. This exhibit gives us a glimpse into some of the racier aspects of their lives. It wasn’t just the “rosy” stories most of us were told in history class about many of these people. But you were able to get a true sense of who these iconic figures were outside their public and/or well known personas. It made the exhibit a real learning moment for me. Most of these shocking secrets about the deep, dark pasts of America’s most famous figures are people who are now deemed to be very cool. The exhibit covers a very diverse subjects from various cultures, backgrounds and age groups. There were hipsters, toddlers, senior citizens and everything in between.

One of the standout moments for me had very little to do with what I was viewing on the walls. I was walking around when I came across an elderly woman who was checking out one of the interactive video displays. At these interactive displays, visitors can choose an era of cool. She and her cane got busy right in the middle of the floor when she heard Missy Elliott’s “The Rain.” It clearly demonstrated that the age boundaries were officially crossed and what was “cool” does not adhere to age old stereotypes.

When you walk into the hallway titled “Alt-100,”  the walls were lined with some of the most controversial figures of most recent past. I halted in my tracks at the sight of Kurt Cobain’s photograph which was purposefully positioned next to Bruce Springsteen and Quentin Tarantino. At that moment, I was officially blown away. In the same hallway, I had a meaningful dialogue with a number of people of different ages and nationalities.  We seem to all agree that the exhibit’s range was robust and the range of controversial figures was inclusive. I left feeling that no matter who you are or where you come from or how old you are,  this exhibition is something amazing which folks need to make time to see.

What do Tony Hawk, Jay Z and Madonna all have in common? Check out the exhibit American Cool exhibit to find out. I guarantee that you will be speechless and feeling mighty “cool” when you leave.


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