America’s Presidential Libraries and Museums are unique to our country. However, the 13 libraries and museums that are in the presidential library system (Lincoln’s has not been added but is great to visit so has been included here), provide a peek into the past of these amazing men, their times, and the challenges they faced. They also allow us a glimpse into the future of America if you follow the history closely enough. This article will provide an overview of some of the Presidential libraries and museums. Subsequent articles will focus on each of them specifically with details useful for travelers.
Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with idea for the first presidential library to house all his papers while he was president.Herbert Hoover thought it was a great idea as well, so Hoover’s came second, even though he was president first. Since then, every president who has followed has been given the funding to build a library and museum at the end of the last term through a combination of private and public funds. Only credentialed historians are allowed access to the library itself, where the papers are kept and preserved by the National Archives. The National Archives also own the contents of the museums. But the land for the museums is owned by the National Park System, so the museums and their artifacts are available for everyone to view.
The Lincoln Library and Museum is one of most high tech and interactive of them. The library and museum are in separate buildings across from each other, but the Gettysburg Address sits out for all to see. Several artifacts from Lincoln’s time were used in modern times; his Bible was temporarily removed from the museum so President Obama could take the Oath of Office on it, and the drawings of his funeral procession were used to design the layout of President Kennedy’s funeral.
In many cases, the homes and even neighborhoods of the former presidents themselves have been restored and are worthy of a visit. Lincoln’s old neighborhood in Springfield, Ill. brings you back to the past, and even the center of town has been preserved to harken back to a simpler time where you can enter the offices of his law firm. In Independence Missouri, where Truman’s Library and Museum is located, a Truman themed Bed and Breakfast sits right across from his historic home, and offers Truman themed events during the year. The Truman Library in Independence, MO is 163 miles away from theEisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. So a visit to one can easily lead to a visit to the next in the same trip.
All the museums show a movie first. The Kennedy Library and Museum on the grounds of University of Massachusetts in Boston was thought out well enough before his assassination so that JFK himself greets you in the movie the from his boat in Hyannis Port. After the movie, you enter the exhibits which take you through his political campaign all the way to his assassination. You are treated to TV monitors along the way with current events showing on the screens, since his was the first presidency to really make use of the media. And as you leave, you see footage of young Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK.
The Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, TX takes you through the tumult of the first days following JFK’s assassination, and details the programs he developed as part of the Great Society, most of which are still in place today. You have to drive quite a distance to Johnson City, TX to see his former home and the oak tree where he is buried, but that location too provides tours and gives an insight into his presidency.
The Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas sits on the banks of the Arkansas River, where you can see (and hear as he chats into your ear) that he really did build a bridge to the 21st century. You can practically touch it. By far the loveliest grounds for any of the libraries are the Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, which overlooks the sprawl of Southern California from the Simi Mountains and onto the coastline on a clear day. It also houses the Air Force One jet he used during his presidency.
The George W Bush Library and Museum in Dallas, is high tech and interactive, but has been controversial since its opening. Its focus is to present the public with the options that were available to him at the time, and allow the public to make their own decisions as to what they whey would have done. It covers every crisis he faced, from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the two wars which followed, to the financial collapse of 2008. For those who remember those times clearly, it could be by far the most interesting.
Subsequent articles will go into detail useful for travelers for all the libraries and museums. But rest assured, these museums are nothing short of magnificent when it comes to learning American history captured directly after the events occurred. Many of them are also used regularly throughout the year. They are venues for debates during political campaigns, funerals for politicians such as Teddy Kennedy, and most have bi-partisan educational events or partisan political fundraising events in the evenings throughout the year.