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Society of American Archivists Article "NARA's Presidential Libraries Update Their Museums with New Perspectives"

The National Archives and Records Administration maintains 13 museums attached to our Presidential Libraries, and we recognize the need to periodically update the presentation. Most recently, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, KS, and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, MO, have undergone complete renovations. The Eisenhower Library debuted its new galleries in summer 2019, and the Truman Library will unveil its new displays when public health considerations will allow us to safely welcome visitors back to the museum.

In his book Who Owns History?, Eric Foner declared, “Historians view the constant search for new perspectives as the lifeblood of historical understanding.” As we look at our museums, we consider the perspectives of growing scholarship and the perspectives of our changing visitor population. Truman Library Director Kurt Graham notes that we know much more about these Presidents and their legacies because of the scholarship of the last 20 years.  Graham and Eisenhower Library Director Dawn Hammatt both acknowledge that fewer people with a personal connection to or memory of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations visit their museums. The renovations were undertaken with the understanding that they had to reach those without preexisting knowledge of the late 1940s and 1950s.

As we’ve seen a great increase in historical scholarship, we’ve also benefited from a greater understanding of how museums connect with the public. The field of museum studies has greatly changed from what it was when our original exhibits were installed. We’ve drawn on that expertise in designing our new exhibits and focused on the goal of making sure people who aren’t scholars have a connection to our shared past.

We have different questions than we had 20 years ago, and we can use the documents and artifacts to address those questions. The two libraries also made a conscious decision to let the Presidents speak directly to the visitors. At the Eisenhower Library, the guiding principle was to let Ike and Mamie speak for themselves, even asking “What would Ike say” when they got stuck. The Truman Library staff use the President’s quotes and film footage throughout, trying to use his perspective and words whenever possible.

Embarking on a complete renovation created an excellent opportunity to go back to the holdings to see what they had to tell the appropriate story. The new exhibits not only draw upon the libraries’ own collections but also tap resources in the National Archives. As an example the display on D-Day at the Eisenhower Library features previously undigitized footage about D-Day planning and landing. This discovery had a twofold benefit: the exhibit now conveys the immediacy and emotion of the historical event, and these historical films are now available to the public.

An example of the way we asked different questions is in the presentation of Truman’s civil rights legacy. Thirty to 40 years ago, that legacy would have been overlooked, but today it is one of the main sections in the museum. Another example is the new Korean War exhibit. Where once discussion of that war was confined to a plaque, it now has its own room.

Perhaps the biggest change is in our use of technology to present information and engage visitors. The old, out-of-date electronic components are now replaced by interactives and mini-theaters. Yet we realize that we cannot rely on technology alone to tell our stories. Recognizing that visitors have different learning styles, the new museums use an assortment of ways to teach and inform. A touch-screen interactive allows a visitor to do a deep dive into the Cold War; audio recordings bring the actual words of the President to life; traditional labels give context to the artifacts and documents.

In retelling the stories of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, we have tried to faithfully represent their words and deeds in a way that draws on the best scholarship and also speaks to a variety of visitors. Because new discoveries or new understanding can change the way we look at historical events, we must periodically reevaluate our museums and assess how well they are telling their stories.

“Who owns history?” asked Foner; “Everyone and no one—which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”