- Historic Sites
Presenting The Presidents
A major new installation at the Smithsonian Institution explores the nation’s biggest and most important job
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
That’s a good question, but what we’re trying to do is offer perspective, not impose values. The perspective we provide is rigorously historical. We don’t say, “You need to think this way.” We say, “You need to understand what brought us to this particular point in our country’s history.” When we do provide a point of view, we point out that there are other points of view as well that the visitor should be aware of. There is less attempting by the Smithsonian than there was 10 years ago to try to influence people’s values. We’re educators, and the job of education is to get people to think critically, not to tell them what to think.
The exhibit has extraordinary scope—the entire history of the country. Is it all too much to absorb in one visit?
We know some of our visitors will want to concentrate their time and attention more tightly. There are 11 distinct sections to the exhibit, and each section has a quick title, and you can look in and see if there are things that catch your fancy. We’ve created an exhibition with objects that pop out at you, so you can look at them in more depth or move on.
How controversial can you get in this government-sponsored museum? Can you mention something like how President Clinton used objects of great historical value at the White House, like the presidential bedrooms, to raise campaign contributions?
We’re going to stay away from that particular issue, but we certainly have a variety of objects that speak to the choices Presidents have made. We do address Watergate, impeachment, and other issues that provide the material to put the Presidency, and various Presidents, in balanced perspective.
Even though the exhibit is set up thematically, it has a strong sense of chronology. You don’t get lost in time or lose sight of where a particular President fits into the larger American story.
That was intentional. The American story has been told, and told well, in fragments in this museum. But it’s time, once again, to start putting the pieces together in museum exhibits, as well as in books and historical documentaries. Connecting the fragments is part of our future plans, and this exhibition is a promising start.
I get the sense that the show has a kind of moral mission: to teach the values of democratic citizenship.
You’re not far off, although I prefer to call it an educational mission. I was a college professor and my wife is a teacher, and I feel quite strongly about this. The exhibition brings attention to the little-appreciated fact that the institution of the Presidency, with its guarantee of a peaceful transfer of power every four or eight years, is a uniquely American institution, as are our presidential campaigns. And that in the shaping of this institution, the individual matters. Every vote counts. That’s an important message at a time when voter apathy among the young is dangerously high. One important feature of the exhibit is a single glass ballot box from the last century. It is there to emphasize the fact that every American President, and the character of every Presidency, has depended on the power of the ballot.