• null
    Screenshot of the homepage of the First Ladies of the United States


The National Portrait Gallery asked Interactive Knowledge to build the “First Ladies of the United States”, an accompanying website for the most anticipated exhibition titled “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States”. In 2017, we launched a similar site for the NPG’s signature permanent exhibition entitled “America’s Presidents”, a bilingual website that provides in-depth information on each of the President’s time in office along with the portrait displayed in the permanent exhibition.

About this project

In the Fall of 2020, the National Portrait Gallery, in collaboration with the White House and the National First Ladies’ Library, opened a temporary exhibition entitled “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States”, in recognition of the innumerable contributions made by these 52 women to our history and culture. The title is borrowed from Julia Gardiner. After marrying President John Tyler in 1844, she sought to reassure her mother that she would rise to the occasion as the highly scrutinized hostess of the White House and the organizer of official receptions and state dinners. “I very well know every eye is upon me, my dear mother, and I will behave accordingly.” The exhibition brings together more than sixty objects to illuminate the accomplishments, personalities, and lives of the nation’s first ladies.


The goals

Because the First Ladies site was to be a temporary exhibition, only on display until May 2021, NPG’s budget for the site was much smaller than its Presidential counterpart. We proposed building a complimentary site based on the existing framework of “America’s Presidents” with all the same functionality and interactivity as the original Drupal 7 site. This solution not only worked within our client’s budget but also helped us to launch the site in 6 weeks, just in time for the exhibition opening in November.


The IK approach

The site has two main components: the online version of the exhibition and a research portal that mines resources from the entire National Portrait Gallery’s collection. The easy to navigate Exhibition site groups the women into six different eras of American history in chronological order. Because the portraits are the focus of the exhibit, each high-resolution image opens in its own modal and can be enlarged to view the incredible details of the portraits. Large imagery along with personal details captures the historical significance each of these ladies brought to the White House. The digital images are available for download for research purposes and accessible icons make sharing this site easy for users.


Research Portal

The research portal features a robust search engine that examines the entirety of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. This makes it easy to discover additional information, imagery, and artifacts in one central location. Filters help to narrow your search results by medium or date of work. The portal also features curated blog posts dedicated to various First Ladies and two NPG podcasts featuring the late journalist Cokie Roberts. Unlike the “America’s Presidents” site, the portal introduces a section entitled “Connecting with the First Ladies” which shares social media and podcast links for Laura Bush, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump.

An Educational Resources section is available that not only outlines all the sources of information for the site’s contents but also provides teacher-created curricula specifically for Classroom Resources such as Smithsonian Learning Lab interactives and downloadable activities.



To make this site as available to the most users as possible, it is fully bilingual and offered in both English and Spanish. The website header includes a language selection toggle so visitors can change between languages on any page. The Drupal translation module provides an easy process for translators to add translated content using admin tools that assure the proper translation appears for every word of content, including body text, menu items, buttons, and directions.


Three mobile devices shows various pages of the First Ladies site



Fully Responsive for Today’s Devices

In the Fall of 2020, more than 50% of general users access websites via a mobile device. The “First Ladies of the United States” website was built with a “mobile-first” strategy that allows all the ease of use of mobile, without sacrificing content. The portraits appear full screen and the site utilizes expandable functionality to show or hide content with a single tap. Horizontal swiping helps to eliminate long scrolling, and “close” buttons will bring a user back to a central navigation strategy.


Content Managed Site with Administrative Dashboard

Because this site launched in an election year, the ability to add a potential new First Lady was imperative for the National Portrait Gallery staff. The Drupal administrative dashboard makes it easy for content managers to keep the site up-to-date using the custom documentation we provided. NPG staff can add new First Lady portraits and content, create curated searches and add them to the Research materials, and expand the Educational Resources section with new and revised content.


WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 Levels A and AA Compliance

Website accessibility is not only responsible but critical for legal compliance. The “First Ladies of the United States” website was built with accessibility in mind. We used both automated and semi-automated validation tools, as well as manual validation to test conformance to WCAG 2.1 Level AA. Combining automated and manual testing ensures a more comprehensive approach to compliance evaluations. Manual testing evaluates websites using a combination of keyboard-only interactions, assistive computer technologies, and web browser plug-ins to determine the accessibility of the site. Manual testing is required to root out the deeper errors, which are the issues that have a greater tendency to expose site owners to legal liability. Among them:

  • Keyboard testing
  • Color contrast testing
  • Screen reader testing
  • Link testing
  • Tables and forms testing
  • Cognitive testing 
  • Mobile testing


The results

The exhibition was to open after the 2020 Pandemic forced a six-month closure of the nation’s museums, cultural institutions, and heritage centers. Unfortunately, just a short time after the opening of the “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States” exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery was forced to close again due to pandemic resurgence. As a result, the mission of the “First Ladies of the United States” site became even more critical as public interest in virtual art experiences increased.

The site became the only entrance into the exhibit and needed to provide users with meaningful and engaging alternatives to in-person viewing.  The Smithsonian magazine listed the site as one of “The Top Ten Online Exhibitions of 2020”. The Washington Post highlighted both the “First Ladies of the United States” site as well as the “America’s Presidents” site in their tribute to the 2021 Inauguration.