- Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory
As a presidential library director, I came to Benjamin Hufbauer's Presidential Temples with the advantage—and disadvantage—of having an insider's point of view of his subject. How delightful, then, to discover that Hufbauer displays a depth of knowledge and understanding that allows his conclusions to resonate far beyond the "for" or "against" stance that characterizes almost everything else written about these peculiarly American institutions.
Hufbauer sees the emergence of presidential libraries, beginning with FDR's gift to the American people of a library to house his papers, as marking the "dramatic increase in Presidential authority of this century." In exploring this theme Hufbauer begins the book with an interesting observation about the Lincoln Memorial—that visitors spend very little time looking at the central statue before they turn to read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address on the walls. Ironically, perhaps, the situation is reversed for presidential libraries, in that visitors are more likely to come to see the objects than to read materials in the archives. But, he argues, both the Lincoln Memorial and presidential libraries are expressive of our "civil religion," with its four elements: national saints (such as Lincoln); sacred places (such as the Lincoln Memorial); sacred objects (the Constitution); and ritual practices (pilgrimages to sacred sites).
Within the context of the argument that "presidential libraries are temples," Hufbauer's descriptions of various libraries and exhibits raise questions of cultural importance about the way that executive power has evolved. "The bigger picture that Presidential Temples paints is that increasing presidential power has led to a new kind of presidential commemoration: self-commemoration—a development simultaneously ominous and practical" (8).
Given their "sacred place" status in Hufbauer's four-cornered template for America's civil religion, perhaps it is not surprising that Presidential Temples is mainly focused on architecture and museum exhibits as they commemorate the president rather than on the numerous symposia, public dialogues, traveling exhibits on various topics, and educational outreach programs that these institutions sponsor. Many of the libraries use their presidential exhibits as starting points for discussing the history of a given period, and they use their archives as sources for teaching students how to do original research. In addition, many presidential libraries were deliberately built on or near a university campus or have established relationships with nearby universities, allowing an intertwining of the life of the university and the public outreach of the presidential library. [End Page 198]
Presidential Temples, focusing as it does on architecture and museum exhibits, offers little discussion of the educational and archival mission of the presidential libraries or the fascinating public-private partnerships that create these peculiar institutions. The combination of the exponential increase in the volume of records produced by each administration and the relative decrease in federal spending for public goods has created what some are calling "the privatization of public memory." Anyone who has considered the degree to which presidential libraries are supported by private donations—in their archival, preservation, and educational functions as well as in their museum exhibits—is led to wonder, Without the "monuments," would the necessary support be there to open the papers for scholars? Without the attention to large personalities and their decisions and the enthusiasm inspired by seeing historical objects, would as many schoolchildren be inspired to learn about a part of the recent American past?
This privatization of public memory is reflected by the widely varying structures and practices of the presidential foundations. To a large extent, each presidential foundation is a reflection of the president who established it. In turn, these private entities, almost wholly responsible for the building of the libraries and the funding of museum exhibits, implicitly express different visions of the future for their individual libraries.
Presidential Temples does well what it sets out to do—explain "how memorials and libraries shape public memory," as the subtitle proclaims. But more attention to the life expressed within...