Presidential libraries are more than just repositories of documents. They are windows into the lives of the country’s most influential leaders.
There are 14 presidential libraries and museums across the country, dedicated to presidents from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. Most of them began as repositories, places to store documents, audio, video and artifacts collected during a president’s term in office to make sure they would always be available to the public. But over time, they evolved into so much more.
Now they are masterpieces in their own right, with artful buildings, beautiful gardens and memorials to commemorate the men who held the highest office in the land.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Simi Valley, California
Step aboard the Air Force One Boeing 707 plane that carried Ronald Reagan more than 660,000 miles during his term as president, or put yourself in the former president’s shoes as you peruse a full-size replica of President Reagan’s Oval Office at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
The Air Force One Pavilion is by far the biggest attraction at the library and museum, said Melissa Giller, chief marketing officer of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. It also makes the museum and library one of the splashiest and most modern of the presidential libraries.
Visitors clamor to tour the “flying White House,” which was also used by six other presidents. They also can peek into one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Marine One helicopters and walk around a presidential motorcade from the Reagan era that includes a Secret Service chase Suburban and 1980s police vehicles.
Reagan enthusiasts can visit the memorial site where Reagan and his wife, Nancy, are buried or a large segment of the Berlin Wall that commemorates the president’s role in bringing the wall down in 1991.
The museum includes 10,000 square feet of temporary exhibit space to house exhibitions on everything from Pompeii and the Vatican to Genghis Khan, the Titanic and George Washington.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home has been a work in progress since it broke ground in Abilene, Kansas, in October 1959. It started back in 1946 when Eisenhower’s boyhood home was given to the Eisenhower Foundation as a museum. Since that time, the campus has expanded to include the Eisenhower library, a visitors center and a museum. The complex also includes a place of meditation, where Eisenhower; his wife, Mamie; and their firstborn son are buried.
This year, the presidential library is completely renovating its museum space and hopes to reopen it on D-Day, June 6, 2019, in honor of then General Eisenhower’s contributions during World War II.
“The new exhibit plan is frankly quite beautiful, but quite emotional also,” said Dawn Hammatt, director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. “We get to use all of these new educational concepts, new to the museum field, about how people learn and what people learn to tell this amazing story about these two people, both Eisenhower and his lovely bride, Mamie.”
Using the writings and recordings of both Ike and Mamie, the exhibit tells the story of their lives through their own words. Eisenhower was the first president to use the television as a means of communicating with the American people, and although there aren’t as many videos as one would find with a modern president, visitors will be treated to some of these early broadcasts.
Ike’s boyhood home is a big draw, and “we see an awful lot of veterans coming through our doors who want a moment to reflect and be thankful,” Hammatt said. “It’s incredible.”
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
Step into President Harry S. Truman’s shoes as he makes some of the most difficult decisions of his presidency in the White House Decision Center at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Visiting groups are assigned roles as a Truman adviser or as Truman himself. They are then given a scene setter that transports them back to issues of the day, such as whether to desegregate the armed forces or recognize the country of Israel.
Using formerly classified documents, the group must persuade the president of their opinions in the matter, and then the president must answer to the “media” to defend his final decision.
“It is the crown jewel of the Truman Library,” said public programs officer Jennifer Vitela of the organization’s reconstruction of the White House West Wing.
Participants go from being an adviser and learning about the issue to gleaning more information about the situation from government documents to asking questions from an informed place, she said. The simulation is so popular that the military uses it to train officers on how to make decisions.
The Truman library opened in Independence, Missouri, in 1957 to hold all the personal items and papers Truman collected as president, vice president and a U.S. senator.
Visitors to the library and museum learn about his life growing up in Independence as well as the time he spent as a soldier during World War I. One of the most influential presidents of his time, Truman is credited with the formation of the United Nations, NATO and Medicare. He also signed the Marshall Plan, or the European Recovery Program, which helped Western countries rebuild after the devastation of World War II.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum
Grand Rapids, Michigan
President Gerald Ford tripped and fell once while disembarking from Air Force One, and the world ever after thought of him as clumsy. But the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, paints a much different picture of Ford. He was athletic, an MVP football player for the University of Michigan. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers to play professionally, but he opted to continue his studies and attend law school at Yale University instead, said Kristen Mooney, public affairs specialist at the Ford Presidential Library and Museum.
Ford joined the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II and served on the USS Monterey as a lieutenant commander. A model of the aircraft carrier is on display at the Ford museum. It was while he was serving in the military that he decided to get into politics. Upon his return from the service, he not only met and married his bride, Betty Bloomer, he also ran against an incumbent Republican for a congressional seat and won, jump-starting his political career.
At the museum, guests are transported back in time to the Ford White House through a full-size replica of his Oval Office complete with his original desk set. A replica of the White House Cabinet Room engages visitors through pictures and stories of the major events presidents discussed while in that space. “Most people don’t know about that,” said Mooney. “People think of the Oval Office, but the Cabinet Room has a wonderful history to it as well.”
Ford became Richard Nixon’s vice president upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew. When Nixon resigned as president, Ford stepped in and served out the rest of Nixon’s term. Unlike other presidential libraries, Ford’s papers are not housed in the Grand Rapids facility. Instead, Ford donated his personal papers to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, starting well before he became president of the United States.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum overlooks old Boston Harbor and the Boston skyline. Though many visitors come to the library to pay their respects to and remember the country’s first Catholic president, who was assassinated during his third year in office on November 22, 1963, the museum doesn’t dedicate much space to the assassination. Instead, the organization focuses on the president’s life and administration and the “terrific presidential legacy he left behind,” said Ian Shepherd, visitor operations manager for the facility.
Exhibits explore Kennedy’s early life through his term as president. Guests walk through galleries that explore his presidential campaign, the debates and his inauguration to the White House. They also highlight his decisions during the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis, two of the biggest ordeals of his young presidency.
No library and museum dedicated to John F. Kennedy would be complete without a tribute to Jacqueline Kennedy. The museum keeps a rotating exhibit of the former first lady’s dresses and gowns from her time in the White House.
A temporary exhibit running until fall 2019 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the president’s birth with 100 different artifacts related to his life. “It gives him a more personal human feel, so people can get a little bit closer to who he was as an individual person rather than the presidential side of things displayed in our permanent exhibits,” said James Roth, deputy director of the library and museum.
The Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum also lays claim to the Ernest Hemingway Collection, a selection of Hemingway’s papers, photographs and mementos that were donated for inclusion in the Kennedy library by Hemingway’s wife, Mary, after her husband’s death. “Ernest Hemingway: A Life Inspired” opened in June 2018.
Visitors may also view the Freedom 7 Mercury space capsule that took NASA astronaut Alan Shepard on the United States’ first manned spaceflight in May 1961. The capsule is on loan to the JFK library until the end of 2019.