The Nation's Flagship History Museum Explores a Uniquely American Office--The Presidency--in Exhibition of Unprecedented Size and Scope
For more than eight decades visitors to the Smithsonian Institution have delighted in viewing the inaugural gowns and other highlights of the First Ladies Collections. Now, with the opening of "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for the first time brings together in one exhibition the artifacts that testify to the lives and times of the country's 41 presidents. The exhibition opens on Wednesday, Nov. 15, one week after the election.
To tell the story of the American presidency, the National Museum of American History, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., will feature a range of new media and interactive experiences. The key storytellers, however, are the more than 900 artifacts on view in "The American Presidency," most drawn from the museum's holdings of more than 3 million objects, by far the largest collection of its kind in the nation.
Among the exhibition's highlights are Thomas Jefferson's wooden lap desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence; the carriage Ulysses S. Grant rode to his second inauguration (1873); the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night of his assassination; and George Washington's military uniform.
Eloquent and surprising juxtapositions result from the pairing of artifacts representing almost every aspect of American life over the course of three centuries. Only in the Smithsonian's "The American Presidency" exhibition could George Washington's battle sword and scabbard be paired with William Jefferson Clinton's military case-containing the topmost national security information.
Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small said, "When we decided to mine the riches of our collections for items that would portray the nature of the presidency, we were determined to show the office as at once incomparably grand and irreducibly human. I believe that the devoted historians who have organized this long-overdue addition to the National Museum of American History have done just that."
Small notes that the exhibition accurately portrays the nation's attitude toward its presidents. "We ask an astonishing amount of our presidents. We have expected them to be father, brother, general, diplomat, arbitrator, economist, pitchman, publicist, cheerleader and a dozen things more. We take for granted that the same person who has the qualities to command armies and deploy an arsenal of awful force will also be available to launch a baseball season, to lead our common celebrations and shoulder our common grief."
The museum team responsible for the exhibition was headed by historian Spencer R. Crew, the museum's director; Lonnie G. Bunch, associate director for curatorial affairs; and Harry R. Rubenstein, political history curator.
"There was no precedent for the American presidency when the framers of the Constitution created the office in 1787," said Crew. "Yet these revolutionaries--who distrusted centralized authority--entrusted near-monarchical powers to this one office. I hope that visitors will come away from this exhibition with a better understanding of this fundamental contradiction, and how it has given rise to conflicting impulses and realities that continue to shape our country's political life even today."
Surprises will abound for visitors. For instance, the earliest known presidential memoir is in the museum's political collection. This early example of "spin" was penned in 1866 by James Buchanan in part to justify his leadership and place in history. Buttons, banners, jewelry, lanterns, hats, pennants and sheet music all make the point that today's "sound-bites" and "photo ops" are not new developments in the lives of American presidents. The exhibition shows a 1999 script from the TV drama "The West Wing"; the suit worn by Harrison Ford in the 1997 movie "Air Force One"; and a 1962 record album, titled "The First Family," featuring Vaughn Meader.
"The American Presidency" has been made possible by the generous support of individual donors and corporate partners including: Kenneth E. Behring, The History Channel, Elizabeth and Whitney MacMillan and Cisco Systems Inc. Additional sponsors include: KPMG LLP, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Automatic Data Processing, Inc. and T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc.
A Walk Through the Exhibition
The visitor to "The American Presidency" experiences the history of this uniquely American office through 11 sections set in more than 9,000 square feet of gallery space. Visitors enter the exhibition through a section titled "Presidential Campaigns," where they are greeted by a video montage of presidents on the campaign trail, and continue into "Swearing In," where presidents since Theodore Roosevelt (1901) can be heard reciting the oath of office. Further along, in "Creating the Presidency," artifacts dating to the earliest days of the nation's history speak of Washington the man and icon, and the conflicted nature of the office's roots.
The section "Celebrating Inaugurations" examines the complex nature of American inaugurations as part carnival, part coronation and part celebration that the torch of democracy once again has been passed in peace. It includes the oldest known photograph of an inauguration (James Buchanan, 1857). In "Presidential Roles," an interactive activity will allow visitors to use a teleprompter to deliver an actual presidential address. Objects in this section range from FDR's cape to an ivory-handled letter seal used by James K. Polk to stamp his own paperwork when the summer heat was so oppressive that he sent the government staff home.
"The American Presidency" continues with a look at the private family life in the White House in a section that features china from the Reagan White House, blue silk pajamas worn by Warren G. Harding and Chelsea Clinton's ballet slippers.
A section on the "Limits of Presidential Power" makes note of the Constitutional and political limits on the president and the impeachment proceedings brought against Clinton (with Congressional documents) and John Dean's Watergate testimony against Richard M. Nixon.
"Assassination and Mourning" traces the sad beginnings of the nation's tradition of ritualized mourning back to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and through the death and funerals of James A. Garfield, FDR, and John F. Kennedy. The section shows how rituals have served a nation unmoored by grief and faced with the need to demonstrate to the world an orderly transference of power. Among the poignant objects here are the top hat worn by Lincoln and the contents of his pocket on the night of his death.
"Communicating the Presidency" presents such objects as a microphone used by FDR in a radio "fireside chat" and an Eisenhower era copy of "A Guide to Your Television Appearance." In "The Presidency in Popular Imagination," representations of the presidency have served to celebrate, criticize, satirize and memorialize the office holders. Visitors will see street signs with presidential names; early political cartoons; "Sweet Home Soap" trading cards of presidents; a Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider doll and Teddy Bear; and sheet music for such songs as "Old Abe Came Out of the Wilderness," "General Harrison's Tippecanoe," "The Unemployment Blues" (a fox trot for FDR) and "Hello Ronnie, Good-bye Jimmy" (for Ronald Reagan).
"The American Presidency" ends with a section on life after the White House, with objects ranging from Washington's wing chair to Teddy Roosevelt's African safari camp desk to Eisenhower's golf clubs.
More than a dozen videos, produced in partnership with The History Channel, will be shown continuously in the exhibition including news footage and film clips on presidents in crisis (such as the Iran hostages and the Great Depression); along with "home movies" of life in the White House; and feature films that depict the president.
A yearlong series of films, lectures, storytelling, conversations, demonstrations, interviews, panels, living history programs, family programs, music, and school tours will kick-off with an opening celebration beginning Nov. 18.
A Web site located at https://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency will feature a navigation system linking objects from the exhibition and presidents to historic eras. The site will include a teacher's manual produced in partnership with The History Channel with activities for grades 4-12.
A lavishly illustrated 208-page companion book, titled The American Presidency, features more than 300 color photographs and 50 duotones. Published by Smithsonian Institution Press, the book will retail for $50 hardcover and $24.95 in softcover. It will be available in November.
Timed-entry passes will be necessary for entrance into "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." Same day entry passes to the exhibition will be available at the presidency kiosk on the museum's third floor beginning Nov. 15. Advance passes will be available through TicketMaster at 1-800-551-SEAT (7328) or 202-432-SEAT (7328). There will be a convenience charge for advance passes.
The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at https://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.