Presenting The Presidents

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn November 15, just a week after the first presidential election of the new millennium, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History will open an ambitious new exhibition, “The American Presidency.” The 7,000-square-foot show will cover all 41 past American Presidents and will be organized thematically, not chronologically. Its sections will include “Presidential Campaigns,” “Inaugural Celebrations,” “Life at the White House,” “Assassinations and Mourning,” “The Media and the Presidency,” and “Life After the Presidency.”


Some of America’s greatest treasures will be on view, among them George Washington’s uniform, the portable lap desk that Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence, and the top hat that Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated. But the exhibit will attempt to go beyond merely displaying such icons; its mandate is to show both how the Presidency has affected American culture and how the pressures of a democratic society in turn have shaped the office. Drawing on the Smithsonian’s vast collections as well as those of other museums, the assemblage is designed to give visitors an in-close, intimate view of life in the White House. It will be a permanent installation.

This past July 1 talked with the director of the National Museum of American History, Dr. Spencer Crew, in his handsome Washington office, as he and the curators Lonnie Bunch and Harry Rubenstein worked with evident excitement on the show.

Many of the museum’s current exhibits emphasize American social history, but this one looks like a return to more traditional political history—to what some people derisively call the history of dead white men.

In a sense it is a return to an older kind of history, but it seemed a natural with the election of 2000 right upon us, and a balance to our show on the First Ladies. Moreover, it weds political history to social history, one of our undeniable strengths. There’s White House fashion and furniture, for example, but it is directly related to how various Presidents, beginning with Washington, used dress, furniture, and manners to shape the character of the Presidency.

The show has had an amazingly fast turnaround, just months, from its announcement to its completion. Whose idea was it?

Soon after the Smithsonian Institution’s new secretary, Lawrence Small, came on board in January 2000, he urged us to do a show on the Presidents, and we jumped on the idea. So we’ve had since March to try to mount the kind of exhibit that normally takes two to three years. But we already possessed an enormous collection of objects related to the Presidency, so it wasn’t so much a matter of looking for new material as of finding fresh and exciting ways to organize and assemble them. In a sense, it was like writing a biography of a President. We had to make hard decisions about what to select and what to leave out.

You, as director, seem to have taken a hands-on role.

I’m quite involved in it. I’ve been writing a couple of the sections and trying to stay on top of things to ensure fast solutions when issues arise. For some months now, more than half my working life has been tied up with the show. Overall, though, we’ve had an extraordinary team approach involving a wide array of staff from all levels of the museum.

For me, great museums are places of discovery and surprise, places where I’m constantly muttering to myself, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” Is there anything in this exhibit that provokes that kind of response?

There are items of deep historic and personal meaning to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. There’s Roosevelt’s blue Navy cape, which he wore instead of a coat because it gave him, with his paralysis, greater freedom of movement. There’s the ingeniously designed brass candelabrum that provided the light by which Washington worked on his Farewell Address. And there’s the portable lap desk of his own design that was Jefferson’s constant companion as a Revolutionary patriot, American diplomat, and President.


Jefferson himself was aware of its historic importance. He left a note under the desk’s writing board before giving it to his granddaughter Ellen and his grandson-in-law Joseph Coolidge, Jr., at their marriage. Let me read it to you: “Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.”

We also have the oldest known photograph of a presidential inauguration, President James Buchanan’s, in 1857. In addition, visitors will be able to see and hear America’s Presidents through historic audio and video reels. We present the voice of every President since William McKinley. Also, in keeping with our museum’s long-time interest in technology, we have the induction balance machine used by Alexander Graham Bell to try, unsuccessfully, to locate electronically the bullet that lodged in President James Garfield and eventually killed him.

People will learn other things they may not have known. Most people know that Robert Frost read a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, but not many know that the glare of the sun prevented him from reading the poem he had written for the event, “Dedication.” Instead he recited another poem of his, “The Gift Outright,” from memory.