Presidential libraries are here to inform us that we don’t know as much about history as we think we do.
It's in places such as these we witness the heroism of young Herbert Hoover who, before his name became forever attached to the Great Depression, was known as the Great Humanitarian for feeding hundreds of thousands of starving Europeans in the wake of World War I. The realities have a way of squashing myths and expanding the perception of these former heads of state.
Unlike traditional libraries, these are research facilities and museums, mainly for official presidential papers, photography and state gifts. The museum portions beckon travelers. Their basic purpose is to tell each president’s life story, from childhood to retirement, through posted commentary and artifacts.
There are currently 13 presidential libraries/museums administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and a few that are privately or state-run, such as those for Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.
The first U.S. presidential library and museum was the brainchild of Franklin Roosevelt. Before FDR, the fate of every president’s official papers had been at the mercy of the president or his heirs. Following FDR, presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower built presidential libraries. Then in 1962, Hoover built one, even though he preceded Roosevelt in office. Since then, with few exceptions, they have been built in chronological order.
To take advantage of the latest technology and newest historical perspectives, most have been redesigned several times since opening. Ronald Reagan’s was completely redesigned in 2011, Lyndon Johnson’s in 2012 and Franklin Roosevelt’s in 2013.
Location is key
At first, presidents built libraries and museums near the places they lived. Roosevelt's in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Truman's in Independence, Mo.; Eisenhower's in Abilene, Kan.; and Hoover's in West Branch, Iowa, were constructed near each president's adult or boyhood home. Years later, Nixon built his next to his childhood home in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Lyndon Johnson started a trend of building presidential libraries on or adjacent to college campuses when his was built at University of Texas in Austin. John F. Kennedy (University of Massachusetts at Boston), George Bush the elder (Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas) and Bush the younger (Southern Methodist University in Dallas) all have libraries on campuses.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had theirs built in venues meant to revitalize urban areas in Atlanta and Little Rock, Ark., respectively. Gerald Ford’s is the only complex split between two cities — the Ford Library is on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor and the Ford Museum is in his longtime home, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Famous rooms and artifacts
Most presidential museums are highlighted by a re-creation of a famous room. Odds are that if you enter one, you’ll encounter a reproduction of the Oval Office. Clinton’s, Carter’s, Reagan’s, Johnson’s, Ford’s, Truman’s and both Bushes’ all have one. At George W. Bush’s, visitors can sit in a replica of his chair. Kennedy’s presidential desk sits alone, set up before cameras as if a press conference is about to start. According to staffers at the FDR museum, the desk there is the only original in a presidential museum.
The elder Bush also went for variety. His museum presents his office at Camp David as well as the White House Situation Room. Clinton’s has a full-size reproduction of the White House Cabinet Room. Nixon’s has replicas of the East Room and the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite place in the White House. FDR’s is home to a singular chamber, the secret White House Map Room, where the president kept tabs on the progress of key battles.
Other museums highlight places of retirement. Truman’s cluttered library office where he worked after leaving the presidency is maintained as it was during his life. Eisenhower’s has a life-size version of his post-presidential office at Gettysburg College while Hoover’s is noted for his Waldorf-Astoria suite in New York City where he lived his last 32 years. Nixon’s has his cozy office from his New Jersey post-presidency home.
Most museums offer activities to provide guests an opportunity to interact with the displays. With the help of a teleprompter in Ford’s museum, you can deliver a speech once given by the man himself. In the elder Bush’s, take a seat behind a replica of his White House desk. At the Reagan Museum, one can call a baseball game, recite movie lines and address the nation just as the Great Communicator did in his career roles as sportscaster, actor and president.
At George H.W. Bush’s repository, one can play a flight simulation game to try to land an airplane on a carrier flight deck as Bush did in World War II. Carter’s allows you to virtually visit nations that Carter has aided as a former president and humanitarian. The Nixon museum’s updated Watergate gallery allows visitors to use touch screens and interactive kiosks to view vintage footage, in addition to putting on a set of headphones and listening to White House tapes.
In George W. Bush's Decision Points Theater people can choose how they would react to a certain crisis, then compare their decisions with those the president made. Similarly, in the Vietnam War exhibit in Johnson’s museum, visitors can put themselves in LBJ’s Texas-sized shoes and decide via touch screen how they would respond in the same situations Johnson faced.
A complete picture
All presidential museums accentuate the positive, and it seems that immediately after a museum opens, it tends to portray its president in almost a saintly manner. Mistakes are rationalized, but nobody, even one's personal favorite president, was perfect. The more time passes, the less there is a tendency toward hagiography.
The Truman Museum today offers pro and con looks at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. FDR’s does the same with World War II-related policies such as Japanese-American internment and the Holocaust and addresses whether the New Deal really worked.
Nixon’s museum recently changed its Watergate gallery to include snippets of his famous anti-Semitic comments. One might say the previous Watergate gallery was presented from Nixon’s point of view, but the tone of the current one, designed by NARA, appears to offer a prosecutor’s perspective. It is hard to believe any presentation of this touchy subject will ever satisfy all sides.
In the Hoover Museum, a display in the Great Depression gallery reads, “To most Americans the president was a remote, grim-faced man in a blue, double-breasted suit. They saw none of his private anguish throughout sixteen hour days, engaging in fruitless mealtime conferences with economists, politicians, and bankers.”
Yet the museum doesn’t absolve Hoover of all guilt. Visitors read, “In truth, Hoover’s celebration of technology failed to anticipate the end of a postwar building boom, or the glut of 26,000,000 new cars and other consumer goods flooding the market.”Comment on this story
Of the nine deceased presidents with presidential libraries under the administration of NARA, all but Kennedy and Johnson are buried either on the grounds of their library complex or nearby. Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just outside Washington, and Johnson is buried in the family cemetery in Johnson City, Texas.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received a MFA in Professional Writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .