- A Brief Critique of the Public History in Presidential Libraries
In his article, Bob Clark explains why he’s disappointed that the future Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago won’t be run by the federal government’s National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In contrast, I analyze the fatal flaw in the public history presented by previous NARA-run presidential museums and explain why I think that it’s better that these institutions avoid the endorsement of the federal government.
Mr. Clark admits that “government-run presidential libraries have their flaws and their weaknesses,” but he then neglects to mention anything specific. Having researched and written about presidential libraries for twenty years, I believe that there is one central problem that outweighs all others combined: the inferior quality of the public history presented at NARA-run presidential museums opened after 1990. Starting with the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, which opened in 1991, presidential library museums function essentially as political infomercials funded by the federal government. Recent presidential museums offer a poor return on investment for taxpayers, who understandably expect the National Archives to deliver a high degree of historical truth in these government-run centers.
The federally run presidential library system began with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in 1941, dedicated the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York.1 The Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum had at its opening, and still has today, two main functions—first, to preserve and to make accessible to historians the records of FDR’s life and political career, and second, to present to the general public a popular history museum. The Roosevelt Library’s archive is crucially important, because it provides historians—with the invaluable help of NARA’s outstanding archivists—with the raw materials of history, making possible many books, articles, and television documentaries that have vastly enriched our understanding of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their eras. But the archival function [End Page 104] of a presidential library is not the main topic of this article, or the main concern of this journal. Instead we will focus on the quality of the exhibits and interpretation at the Roosevelt Museum and at the dozen subsequent presidential library museums run by NARA.
In a nutshell, the quality of that public history varies greatly between museums, and each museum also changes over time as the power of a former president and his supporters fades. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the Roosevelt Museum mainly exhibited relics of Roosevelt’s life, from the christening gown worn when he was an infant, to a papier-maché sculpture of him as a sphinx made by an admirer during his presidency. Over time, more historical context and displays were added, but crucial historical details, especially concerning anything that might be critical of President Roosevelt and his policies, were almost always excluded. For instance, FDR’s relative inaction in response to growing information about the Holocaust during the early 1940s was ignored by the museum until the late 1990s. Roosevelt’s support for the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor was also left out of the museum until the 1990s. By the early twenty-first century, most of these flaws were finally remedied, but that was more than half a century after FDR had died, and decades after many books and articles—written with access to the raw historical records also found at the Roosevelt Library—had told a somewhat different story about FDR. Overall, most historians still believe that Roosevelt was one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States, but before the 1990s, the Roosevelt Museum went far beyond that to create a story of an almost infallible president.
And this white-washed image of presidents who almost never make mistakes has been the rule at all NARA-operated presidential museums when they first open. Why? Well, as Mr. Clark indicates, there are challenges inherent in the public-private partnerships that create and sustain presidential libraries run by NARA. Starting with FDR, and apparently ending with George W. Bush, presidents have raised money from their supporters to build their presidential libraries—including the first museum exhibits—and...