Nov. 14, 2000

Media only: Melinda Machado (202) 357-3129
Linda St.Thomas (202) 357-2627 ext. 108

The Nation's Flagship History Museum
Explores a Uniquely American Office — The Presidency —
in Exhibition of Unprecedented Size and Scope

With the opening of "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History brings together for the first time objects that represent the lives and times of the country's 42 presidents. The exhibition opens on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

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; the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln the night of his assassination; George Washington's battle sword; Bill Clinton's military case — used to contain the topmost national security information; a 1999 script from the TV drama "The West Wing"; and the suit worn by Harrison Ford in the 1997 movie "Air Force One."

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small says, "We ask a lot 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. This exhibition shows all these aspects of the job."

The museum team responsible for the exhibition is 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," says 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."


"The American Presidency" has been made possible by the generous support of individual donors and corporate partners including: Kenneth E. Behring, The History Channel, Chevy Chase Bank, Cisco Systems Inc., Elizabeth and Whitney MacMillan, and Heidi and Max Berry. Additional sponsors include: Automatic Data Processing Inc.; Business 2.0; KPMG LLP; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; and T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. The United States Congress has supported the exhibition and a future traveling component with a $2 million federal appropriation.

The Exhibit

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 Franklin D. Roosevelt 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 George 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 are arranged around a central artifact — the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

"The American Presidency" continues with a look at the private family life in the White House in a section that features china from the Ronald 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 Bill Clinton (with Congressional documents) and John Dean's personal copy of his Watergate testimony.

"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. Among the poignant objects here are the drum played during Lincoln's funeral procession and the top hat he wore on the night of his assassination.

"Communicating the Presidency" presents such objects as a microphone used by FDR in a radio "fireside chat" and a Dwight D. 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 from towns across America bearing presidents' names; political cartoons; a Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider doll and Teddy Bear; and sheet music for songs such as "Old Abe Came Out of the Wilderness."

"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.

Public Programs

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 ( will feature a navigation system linking objects from the exhibition and presidents to historic eras. The site includes a teacher's manual produced in partnership with The History Channel with activities for grades 4-12.


An 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.

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