- Presidential Libraries as Performance: Curating American Character from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush by Jodi Kanter
Visitors to presidential libraries expect to discover a president’s early influences, journey with him on his rise to power, evaluate his domestic and international policies, relive his political struggles, and delight in touching personal stories about life in the White House. What they perhaps do not expect to encounter is a lens through which to understand how to be an American.
Presidential Libraries as Performance by Jodi Kanter demonstrates the myriad ways these museums define and influence cultural identity and suggests how they can better mirror the nuanced realities of the Oval Office, its place in a period’s unique social and political climate, and the complexities of American character. Presidential libraries, whose records are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), but whose exhibits are often managed in partnership with private foundations, are—and should be—more than static chronicles of the commander in chief’s time in office. Kanter evaluates narrative themes and exhibition techniques employed at these sites and considers how they affect visitors’ understanding of both the library’s namesake and their own role in public life. The approach is wholesale, moving beyond the exhibit space to consider how the entire museum site and its architecture convey certain messages.
Case studies and comparisons reveal critical tensions. Presidential family in-fighting, funding, and issues of artifact selection and curation reveal a constant negotiation that results in different institutional arrangements and types of exhibits. There is no off-the-shelf plan for presidential libraries. Kanter keeps readers’ interest and challenges them to become more observant and critical visitors by helping them understand the stories behind the libraries’ creations, their strengths and shortcomings, and the differences among them.
Kanter debunks the myth of presidential individual agency and calls for [End Page 118] forthcoming and inclusive exhibits that better resonate with visitors and honor their own political voices. Some of this work has already begun. Several sites have redone displays to include omitted and controversial topics (for example, the Watergate scandal exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, opened in 2011) and to invite meaningful visitor participation (such as the 9/11 gallery at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas). Kanter urges museum professionals to continue this work by offering suggestions ranging from the practical to the creative, but as an interdisciplinary analysis, her book will appeal to scholars of modern presidential history, politics, cultural identity, and American Studies.
Presidential Libraries as Performance includes descriptive vignettes and assessments of Texas’s own Lyndon B. Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush Libraries’ exhibits. One museum feature excluded from the study is the gift shop, which, though beyond the scope of Kanter’s focus, could provide an interesting look at performance (presidential and generally American) vis-à-vis consumerism. Still, in the age of 24/7-news-cycle-and-Twitter-fueled political theater, the suggestion that the presidential library could recast itself as a place for open, critically honest discourse instead of as a final word on executive legacy, as many presidents may hope, is a refreshing thought.