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Presenting The Presidents

June 2024
8min read

A major new installation at the Smithsonian Institution explores the nation’s biggest and most important job

On 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.

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?


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.


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