Presenting The Presidents

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Do icons like Lincoln’s top hat still possess the power to move people in our media-driven, electronic age?

They certainly do. That’s why people come to a museum. They love to have close contact with objects touched and held by historic figures, things like Washington’s red bedroom chair and the telescope he used in his retirement at Mount Vernon as he watched boats on the Potomac.

Are more people going to American history museums today than 10 or 15 years ago?

The trend is upward. More and more families are combining their vacations with visits to historic sites, and our museum is benefiting from that. We’re also drawing more people by sponsoring activities and programs that tie in with our exhibitions. With this show, we will have a yearlong series of programs, concerts, films, lectures, living-history performances, family days, and other special events.

 

What will the exhibit offer that is truly intellectually substantial?

I hope visitors will leave it with a keener understanding of the office of the Presidency, the kinds of challenges it entails, and how dramatically it has evolved and changed over time. We also want people to appreciate how we, the citizens of this country, have had a tremendous impact on the way the Presidency operates. We often forget that the Presidency is an evolved institution. The Constitution provided only the vaguest notion of the job. The office had to be defined and shaped by the men who occupied it.

No President understood this more than Washington. He established the Presidency as the central power of the Executive branch, yet he was careful not to act or dress like a king, something many people actually wanted him to be. He asked to be addressed simply as Mr. President and furnished the Executive mansion in an elegant but restrained manner, reflecting Revolutionary America’s egalitarian character. At the same time, he let people know by small symbolic acts who was on top, bowing to guests rather than extending a personal handshake.

He molded the office, and Presidents after him have continued the practice. The Presidency both shapes our democratic culture and is shaped by it. We want visitors to see that. And if they see that, they’ll appreciate that they have had a role in the making of our most powerful branch of government. I also want people to leave the exhibit with the sense that these men are not deities. They’re people—people who often rose to great challenges but who sometimes fell a bit short, which is only to be expected.

One of the things you make beautifully clear in the exhibition is that the Presidency has been shaped not only by the actions of Presidents but also by democratic struggle. You remind visitors that the Constitution doesn’t define who votes, yet who votes determines the kind of President we get.

Right. The history of the Presidency, as we present it, gets into the whole issue of how a democracy works and how much people’s votes matter. Who votes for the President is at the heart of who gets to influence the politics of the country. We didn’t even have popular democracy for white males until the time of Andrew Jackson.

So the exhibit is, in some sense, the story of the making of the first modern democracy. Do you see yourself, as a director of the country’s largest historical museum, as a storyteller?

I do, and so do most of my colleagues here. We try to tell interesting stories about individuals but also stories that connect the visitor to the museum’s objects. A good exhibit presents a well-crafted, absorbing story, and it tries to draw the visitor into the story in a personal way.

Walking around the museum, I see families and other groups talking animatedly about what they’re looking at, mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers telling their own small stories as they relate to the bigger ones on display. That’s the kind of conversation every history professor dreams of having in the classroom. But in your classroom you have a daunting task. With over five million people a year coming through—people of all ages and educational levels and from every ethnic group in America—how do you reach such a tremendously diverse audience?

Our core target is families and children. We know for sure that most visitors coming to the museum come in groups, and very often those groups are family-related, or at least intergenerational. So we try to create a presentation that gets to the center of the group. We want to offer ideas that allow younger visitors to get excited or that are at least interesting enough to make the older members of the group want to explain them to the younger ones. And that’s hard to do.

It’s the same problem a historian faces when trying to write for a wide audience, and like the works of a good historian, your exhibits are interpretative, not just factual. Are you thus trying to influence, and even manipulate, the values of people who come to the museum, to get them to see history in a certain way?