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Presidential libraries: Hail to these chiefs

By Cecil Stoughton, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

For their 10th wedding anniversary, President John F. Kennedy gave first lady Jacqueline Kennedy a choice of several gifts. Although a gold bracelet was not the most expensive, “she could tell he really wanted her to pick it,” said Rachel Flor, director of communications for the John F.  Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Flor said the bracelet has been in the museum’s collection for years, “but we didn’t know anything about it.” Jacqueline Kennedy explained the origin of the bracelet in oral interviews she made in the months following Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination that were only made public last fall.

The oral histories are the subjects of a temporary exhibit at the library and museum that runs through the end of the year.

“The exhibit aims to connect artifacts in our collection with things Mrs. Kennedy talked about in the oral history,” said Flor.

Presidential libraries and museums are a great source for seeing the personal sides of our presidents, in addition to offering insights into their official actions and the times in which they governed.

The National Archives and Records Administration manages 13 presidential libraries, one for each president since Herbert Hoover. Here is a look at a handful of presidential libraries and museums that make great group visits.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
All the presidential libraries and museums house numerous artifacts and records associated with their subject. Flor said one thing that makes Kennedy’s distinctive is its design and location.

“It is right on the water,” she said. “It reflects President Kennedy’s love of the sea. Its surroundings and the modern design of the building by I.M. Pei are reflective of his character.”

Groups can arrange for guided or self-guided tours of the museum’s 25 multimedia exhibits, which cover Kennedy’s life from his Massachusetts boyhood to his presidency and his assassination.

“One of the artifacts that is a must-see is the coconut President Kennedy inscribed with a rescue message during World War II,” said Flor. “He had it made into a paperweight, which is on the desk in the Oval Office.”

Like many of the other museums, the Kennedy museum has an exact replica of the Oval Office as it appeared during Kennedy’s administration. Kennedy’s includes his collections of ship models and scrimshaw and a rocking chair he used.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Hyde Park, N.Y.
A temporary exhibit at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., will shed new light on the personal and professional lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“The Roosevelts: Public Figures, Private Lives” is an innovative photographic exhibit that will offer new visual perspectives on the Roosevelts from more than 1,000 photographs and home movies.

“The photos are the best of the best of never-before-seen photos of Roosevelt,” said Cliff Laube, public programs specialist for the museum. “And there are some fairly famous photos we have only known as black-and-white that we have come across color transparencies of.”

Laube said it is the largest photo exhibit ever on the lives of the Roosevelts and will include the only three photos ever taken of FDR in his wheelchair.

The exhibit, scheduled to open in early May, will be displayed for the next year and a half while the museum’s permanent exhibits are undergoing an extensive renovation and remodeling.

“It is very exciting,” said Laube. “We are bringing the museum into the 21st century with a lot of interactive exhibits and a lot of exciting new features, including stitching Eleanor into the story from the beginning. Both stories will be woven through the entire exhibit. The theme will be the Roosevelts as the first couple of the people.”

Laube said the exhibits are being designed to help visitors experience the Roosevelt presidency as the people living in that era did.

“The overriding theme will be the interaction that occurred between average Americans and President and Mrs. Roosevelt.”

The renovated exhibits are scheduled to open in late summer 2013.

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Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Simi Valley, Calif.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum completed a major renovation last year that created 17 new galleries filled with interactive opportunities to learn about the 40th president.

“It is highly interactive in scope,” said Melissa Giller, director of communications. “Guests can actually act in a movie with Reagan in front of a green screen, take the oath of office, ride a horse with him on his ranch, learn about state dinners, create their own china patterns and, obviously, learn about his life. It encompasses his life from birth through postpresidency.”

The museum is the only presidential museum with an Air Force One, which is displayed in a 90,000-square-foot, three-story building.

“It served seven U.S. presidents,” said Giller. “You get to walk around the whole plane, under it and through it. It is a pretty cool experience. Inside is outfitted with jelly bean jars [Reagan was famous for his love of jelly beans], playing cards and the actual china used in the front galley.”

The building also houses a Marine One helicopter used by President Lyndon Johnson and a Secret Service sport-utility vehicle used in presidential motorcades.

Giller said another distinctive feature of the exhibit is the Irish bar that Reagan visited during a 1984 diplomatic trip to Ireland. The bar’s interior was shipped to the museum after it closed in 2004, and it now serves the dual role of artifact and snack bar.

“It is the actual bar, bar stools, taps and signage,” said Giller. “It is an actual artifact; but during the day you can have a beer at the same bar President Reagan did in 1984.”

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