The Portrait Gallery had its origin in the framed photos of early NBS leaders that graced the walls of the Senior Lunch Club on the third floor of the South Building at the old site on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. These included well-known figures from early NBS history such as Harry Diamond, Hugh Dryden, W. W. Coblentz, William Hillebrand, and Edward Rosa. When the move to Gaithersburg took place in the mid-1960s, the portraits were moved to the new NBS Lunch Club, which was at the site of the present Heritage Room. In the early 1970s Director Lewis Branscomb proposed that these portraits form the beginning of a gallery to honor distinguished NBS alumni. When the Lunch Club was refurbished in 1985, the portraits were moved to the alcove just outside in the hallway.
In 1988 Director Ernest Ambler asked the SAA to oversee the creation of an up-to-date portrait gallery. SAA President Churchill Eisenhart organized a committee of senior retirees representing both technical and administrative areas. The other members of the original committee were Chester Page, Richard Cook, James Wright, Bascom Birmingham, Lawrence Wood, and Reeves Tilley. This committee announced the initial members of the NBS/NIST Gallery of Distinguished in 1988. This list of 79 NBS/NIST alumni included those whose portraits were already displayed in the alcove, as well as a number of more recent alumni.
Although the SAA continued a Portrait Gallery Committee to oversee the display of the portraits, a systematic procedure to add to the list of honorees was not established immediately. Except for the addition of 19 portraits in 1995, no further additions were made until Hans Oser, Ron Johnson, and Reeves Tilley reactivated the SAA committee in 1998. Since that time a formal induction ceremony has been held each year, including a reception for friends and family. Furthermore, in an effort led by Anneke Sengers, with the help of Ralph Hudson and David Lide, the SAA drew up selection criteria and established a procedure for soliciting nominations in a standard format, appointing a jury to evaluate the candidates, and deciding which ones to propose to the NIST director for approval. The Portrait Gallery is now one of the SAA activities most visible to the NIST staff.
Today, the 368 portraits — soon to be expanded to 377 portraits with the addition of the 2023 honorees — line both walls of the corridor. In addition, digital kiosks that contain all the portraits and biographies have been installed in both Gaithersburg and Boulder and are available for use by both staff and visitors. Furthermore, all the portraits and biographical material can be accessed via the internet through the NIST Digital Archives.