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Society of American Archivists article "New Looks at Presidential Library Museums"

January 2017

In 2016, we marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Presidential Library system. When President Franklin Roosevelt in dedicated his library in 1941, he shared his vision to make available “to future Americans the story of what we have lived and are living today.” 

As decades pass, our understanding of past events changes. As more and more records are processed and declassified, history is constantly being rewritten. In Who Owns History, Eric Foner wrote: “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives. . . . Who owns history? Everyone and no one—which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving neverending journey of discovery.”

New information and new ways at looking at things creates both a need and an opportunity to revisit how we tell our stories. In recent years, the majority of our Presidential libraries have redesigned their permanent galleries or are planning to make major improvements. These efforts have brought refreshed exhibits, new technology, and creative interactive experiences that allow visitors to better understand the context of each President’s life, and times.

In 2016, the Gerald R. Ford Museum and the Richard Nixon Library and Museum reopened, offering visiting striking new exhibits, with cutting-edge interactives, and historically balanced assessments of our 37th and 38th Presidents.

In June, the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, MI, welcomed visitors back to its galleries and a new learning center. The eight-month renovation completely rebuilt the museum’s exhibits and added the DeVos Learning Center.

The Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, CA, reopened its museum in October 2016. All exhibits, except for the more recently installed Watergate exhibit, have been redesigned and now feature President Nixon’s secretly recorded tapes and his handwritten notes as part of their displays.

These two recent renovations continue a long line of major museum redesigns.

The Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, GA, began the recent trend in 2009 with new exhibits about the Carter Presidency and the former President’s international work in the years since he left office.

The next to modernize was the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA which reopened 18 new galleries in 2011. A major renovation in 2012 at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, TX, gave the exhibit space a completely new look.

The most extensive redesign project took place at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY. From 2010 to 2013, the library embarked on its first full-scale renovation since the building opened to the public in June 1941. The new permanent museum exhibits offer a fresh look on the Roosevelt Presidency and the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, MA, refreshed its exhibit galleries in 2015, adding digital imagery and installing new interactives featuring assets from the Kennedy Library’s digital archives.

And there are many more changes still to come. The Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower Libraries are working with their foundations to develop design plans for their respective museums. The Eisenhower Library in Abilene, KS, is planning to unveil its new display spaces on June 6, 2014. The Truman Library in Independence, MO, is targeting a 2020 reopening.

The museums in the Presidential Library system are in the strongest shape they have been in their history. I am especially proud of these efforts which help give new shine to these jewels in National Archives’ crown—and wish to express my appreciation for the support of the Presidential library foundations who were our key partners in each redesign effort. 

If you have not visited a Presidential library lately, come by and see what we’ve been up to. The museum experiences we currently offer to our visitors are more engaging than ever!