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by Lynn Bassanese
Most days at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum are really good; some could even be classified as great. But every once in a while a day becomes exceptional. Last Thursday, July 11th was one of those exceptional days.
We were hosting 120 school counselors and college and university professionals who were attending the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC) conference on the Marist College campus from July 9-11. Marist College is just down the road from the Library and a terrific partner; hosting our website and working with us on digitization projects. Marist arranged for several regional excursions on the last evening of the conference and the Library was very pleased to host part of the group.
Their visit started in our auditorium seeing the engaging orientation video and then Education Specialist Jeff Urbin welcomed them with the story of King George and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Hyde Park in 1939. We hoped to make our visitors feel as special as the Roosevelts had made the British monarchs feel. Yes, hot dogs were on the picnic menu that Marist was providing later in the evening.
Next we sent them over to our new permanent museum exhibits and set them loose. During their time in the exhibits they had the opportunity to visit our Dutchess County conference room to see some of our most famous original documents. I walked through the exhibits as they visited, answering questions and encouraging them to see everything.
At six o’clock the group gathered in our Visitor Center for a delicious picnic supper. During my welcome at dinner I explained to them what a presidential library was and how important access was to our Library and to our agency, the National Archives and Records Administration. And I reminded them that it was FDR’s vision that people could learn from the past to better create their own future that was the driving force behind all the Library did.
As the folks were getting back on the buses to leave so many people stopped to tell me how much they enjoyed their visit and the new exhibits. So far, I was thinking this was going into the great day category because what Library director does not get a special feeling when people appreciate and love what we have presented. But then an older woman came up to me and took my hand and said she wanted to thank me. She said she was from Venezuela and with tears rolling down her cheeks she squeezed my hand and told me how much this visit meant to her.
“This is what democracy looks like,” she said with the most beautiful smile. And all of a sudden July 11, 2013 became one of the Library’s exceptional days.
These days much of our time is spent on reports and audits, and we must spend so much time looking for ways to cut our budgets and doing more with less. But we should never forget that at National Archives facilities all over the country; at our presidential libraries, at our regional centers, at Archives I and II; we are what democracy looks like. I will always remember the lovely woman from Venezuela who reminded me of that. And how could there be any more important and rewarding job than that!
by David B. Woolner, Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian, The Roosevelt Institute
In the summer of 2000, a group of historians gathered at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum to examine the question of how the permanent exhibit at the FDR Library might be reconfigured for a new generation. The group, which included some of America’s most well-respected historians, was led by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who at the close the two-day session, drew up a report based on the proceeding that was issued to the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
At the core of the discussion and the report that followed was the question of how best to interpret or re-interpret the tumultuous events of the Roosevelt era? How could we help a generation that was born long after Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had gone understand what it was like to live through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the birth of the United Nations or the early years of the civil rights movement?
What topics and issues should be included? How should such controversial issues as the internment of Japanese-Americans or America’s response to the Holocaust be treated? Should we represent Eleanor Roosevelt’s career as separate from FDR’s in the exhibit or should her impact on his life and presidency be intertwined throughout?
Given the enormous historical scope of the Roosevelt era, which—when one includes the influence that Theodore Roosevelt had on Franklin and Eleanor—includes much of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that this initial report did not try to answer all of these questions. Instead it offered a framework from which a smaller historians committee and the staffs of the Roosevelt Institute and FDR Library might draw guidance as they set about the colossal task of trying to develop a new exhibit that would bring one of the most dramatic periods in American history to life for a new generation.
Over the next several years, the historians committee, working closely with the staff and the design team of Gallagher and Associates, would grapple with both the history of the period and how best to present it to the public. With respect to the question of Eleanor Roosevelt, it soon became apparent that her life and influence were so intertwined with Franklin’s that the most meaningful and realistic way to present her in the exhibit was to incorporate her activities with his. The committee also quickly concluded that it was important to remind the visitors that the Great Depression was not confined to the United States but was part of a larger world economic crisis that helped give rise to fascism in Europe and militarism in Asia.
In the same spirit, the committee also came to the conclusion that FDR’s decades-long struggle with polio deserved far more treatment than it had had in the past. While, at the same time, after much discussion and consideration, it was decided that the best way to treat such difficult topics as Japanese internment and the Holocaust was not to take a position, but to present the public with a variety of documents, evidence and different historical interpretations so that they might have the opportunity to make up their own minds about why these tragic events occurred.
Most important of all, the committee thought it was critical to point out the myriad of ways that the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt continue to touch our own, through the transformative programs of the New Deal, which forever changed the relationship between the American people and their government, to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which since its ratification at the United Nations in 1948 has become the “Magna Charta of humanity.”
Nearly three quarters of a century ago, in the midst of the most terrible war in human history, Franklin D. Roosevelt opened this historic library in the hope that by doing so he might encourage a generation of Americans “so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” It is the sincere hope of all of the historians who took part in the creation of this new exhibit that the work we have carried out here will build on the profound legacy established by these two extraordinary Americans, so that a new generation may discover, as FDR advised all those years ago, how to build a better future from the past.
The distinguished members of the historians committee were Allida Black, Alan Brinkley, William Leuchtenburg, Edward Linenthal, William J. vanden Heuvel, Geoffrey Ward, and David Woolner. The Roosevelt Library is grateful to the committee for its hard work, collegiality, and enthusiasm. The new permanent exhibit project simply could not have been done without this incredible community of Roosevelt scholars.
Controversial issues are part of every presidency. As a four term president Franklin D. Roosevelt had his share and as our exhibit design team and historians committee planned our new permanent museum exhibits we talked at great length about how to deal with them. Our decision was to address these issues head on. “Confront the Issue” are ten interactive touch screens strategically located throughout the exhibition that offer visitors the opportunity to explore digital “flipbooks” that contain documents, photographs, and excerpts from historians — with multiple viewpoints — related to controversial issues during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Topics include “Japanese American Internment,” “FDR and the Holocaust,” “FDR’s Health,” and “Did the New Deal Really Work?”
The Confront the Issue interactives allow visitors to more deeply explore documentation from the Library’s archival collections and to read excerpts from all sides of the historical debate about these difficult subjects. Rather than telling the visitor what to think, the Confront the Issue interactives allow them to draw their own conclusions and to gain a deeper understanding of the historical and political context in which FDR did or did not make decisions or took or failed to take action. There are no easy answers to these questions. Our hope is that after exploring the Confront the Issue interactives is that the visitor will walk away from them with greater understanding and a desire to learn more about it.
Putting together a brand new 12,000 square foot museum exhibit has been quite an adventure. There are countless components that go into the design and fabrication of an exhibit. Currently, we are working with a design company, an interactive contractor, a fabrication company and an audiovisual production company.
One of the highlights of the experience came on May 6th when museum curator Herman Eberhardt and I traveled to New York City to meet our audiovisual contractor, Monadnock Media, to record the narration for our Legacy film. There are 17 audiovisual productions in our new exhibit ranging from silent film treatments to immersive theater experiences. But there is no more important film than the one which will be shown in the Legacy Theater, the very last thing people experience in our exhibit. Here our visitors should understand that the world we live in today is still very much the world that Franklin Roosevelt envisioned and fought for.
Our team struggled with the script for this important theater. Nothing seemed to hit the mark until our audiovisual producer found an essay that President Bill Clinton had written about FDR back in 2000. As soon as we read it we knew it was our script. Clinton captured the essence of FDR and his legacy.
I reached out to President Clinton through his staff and my dear colleague, Terri Garner, director of the Clinton Presidential Library. I was not only asking to use Clinton’s essay but I wanted him to read it as the narration for our film. A lot to ask one of the busiest former presidents in our country’s history.
I knew the one thing I had in my favor was that Clinton loved FDR. He had visited the Roosevelt Library three times during his presidency and once after leaving office. Fortunately for us he agreed to record – our last hurdle was working with his staff to find the time in his busy schedule.
We did the recording at a New York City hotel after he attended a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. He seemed a bit tired after a very long day but he was charming and gracious and the minute I heard him reading his words I knew we were going to have an amazing experience for our museum visitors. Our heartfelt thanks to President Clinton for his amazing generosity with his time and his words and to Terri Garner, director of the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and Elizabeth Bibi, senior communications associate for the Clinton Foundation, for their assistance in making it all happen.
There is something about working at the FDR Library that is addictive. There is a reason why so many of its staff members are former interns who just could not leave. I am no exception. The objects, the projects, the history, and the camaraderie of the staff keep you coming back for more.
After several years of working in museums and archaeology in the New England area, I decided to go back to school for my master’s degree (ALM) in Museums Studies. As part of the requirements for the program, I worked in the Museum Department at the FDR Library as an intern during the summer of 2005.
That summer, we began the process of inventorying the entire museum collection of over 34,000 objects. This meant photographing, measuring, and writing descriptions and condition reports for each object. We only completed a small portion of the project that summer, so I stayed on as a volunteer to continue the endeavor. I went on to become a part-time contracted Museum Technician and in March 2010 I was hired as a full-time employee.
Though the 100% inventory project was completed in the fall of 2008, a re-inventory of the collection began soon after and continues as an ongoing project. On any given day I could be answering research requests, fixing a problem with the exhibits, writing entries for the “From the Museum” section of the blog, helping develop the interactives for the new permanent exhibit, preparing museum objects to be sent out for conservation work, processing department purchase orders, planning the final move of the collection into new compact storage, or developing a descriptive audio tour for the future exhibits. With such a broad scope of duties, I enjoy being able put my hands on several different projects at once.
I had spent much of my collegiate studies learning about earlier periods of American culture, so having access to the tangible records of the last century has given me an invaluable history lesson. It is truly motivating being able to handle so many items related to the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the world they influenced. There is a difference between reading about FDR’s efforts to suppress from the public the totality of his disability and feeling the actual ten pound weight of his steel leg braces. This significantly put his hardships into perspective. I gained an appreciation for each artifact realizing sometimes even the smallest trinket in the collection had something to do with shaping Roosevelt’s personality and therefore his principles as an individual and as a president.
New Photo Exhibit is Open!
From May 1, 2012 to late summer 2013 — while the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum’s permanent exhibit galleries are closed for the final stage of a $35 million renovation — the Roosevelt Library is presenting the largest photography exhibition ever assembled on the lives and public careers of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. “THE ROOSEVELTS: PUBLIC FIGURES, PRIVATE LIVES,” is a new and very different kind of exhibit that takes visitors on an immersive photographic and film journey through the lives and times of the Roosevelts. The exhibition features nearly one thousand images that vividly depict both their public and private lives.
Be sure to also check out the fantastic piece by Ed Rothstein in the New York Times about the Library’s new photo exhibit!
April 30, 2012
Today is a day of mixed emotions. We are closing the permanent exhibits at the Roosevelt Library to turn the spaces over to our general contractor for a much needed renovation. And immediately following that work an exhibit fabricator will start to install a brand new permanent exhibit.
Some of our current museum exhibits have been in place since 1972. An alarmingly long time for any museum exhibit so the prospect of change is exciting. But for many, those exhibits are like old friends. In my very first job at the Library in 1972 I was a part time archives aide and pressed into service assisting the museum staff as they worked to complete the First Fifty Years Gallery. The exhibit was done completely in house and my job was to paint the paper we were using for exhibit labels. After the tan color paint dried I would roll the paper into a typewriter that had a special ball with a large size font. Then I very carefully typed the label copy on the paper and cut it to fit into its wooden frame. It was a long process and one mistake sent you all the way back to painting more paper. You can bet I will be grabbing one of those original labels for my memory box before the demo crew comes through.
In the last 40 years I have taken so many people through our exhibit spaces; heads of state, celebrities, journalists and countless tourists who just looked a little lost as I was passing through the galleries. I was often late for meetings because I had stopped to point out something interesting in the exhibit to one of our visitors and a brief stop turned into a mini tour. What can I say—I love the place and I love showing it off!
So we bid a fond farewell to an amazing chapter in the Roosevelt Library’s history. And in the same breath we proclaim the coming of a new and powerful permanent exhibit opening in late summer 2013. New state-of-the-art installations on the life and times of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt will tell the story of the Roosevelt presidency from the depths of the Great Depression and continuing through the New Deal years and the Second World War, while also covering their early years and FDR’s heroic struggle to regain his strength and political career after polio. Concluding galleries will consider the Roosevelt legacy today and guide visitors through Mrs. Roosevelt’s work in the years following the President’s death. The exhibit features special interactives and audio-visual theaters designed to bring the new deal to a new generation.
And in the meantime from spring 2012 to late summer 2013—while our permanent exhibit galleries are closed for the final stage of the Library’s renovation—the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is presenting the largest photography exhibition ever assembled on the lives and public careers of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. “The Roosevelts: Public Figures, Private Lives,” is a new and very different kind of exhibit that takes visitors on an immersive photographic and film journey through the lives and times of the Roosevelts. The exhibition features nearly one thousand images that vividly depict both their public and private lives.
These photographs include famous and familiar images, many reproduced in dramatically large formats. But the exhibit also presents visitors with new visual perspectives on the Roosevelts through large numbers of unique and rarely-seen personal photographs from the unparalleled photographic collections at the Roosevelt Library. Shot by family members, friends, government officials, and other insiders, these images offer fascinating views into the private lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their family and political associates. The highlight of the exhibit is a multimedia presentation featuring original audio recordings of Eleanor Roosevelt speaking about her family life.
One of our primary goals throughout the Library renovation has been to keep the Museum open to the public. This new exhibit was designed by our museum staff to serve not just as an interim exhibition but also a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our visitors. Never before have this many photographs of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt been assembled in one place. If a picture is worth a thousand words just imagine the story 1,000 photos can tell.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the enormous support of the Roosevelt Institute, the Library’s private partner. They are providing all of the financial support for the design and installation of the new permanent exhibit and our temporary exhibit. We owe so much to their Board of Directors led by Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and their amazingly supportive staff led by President and CEO Felicia Wong.
The Roosevelt Library owes its biggest gratitude to Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel and his outstanding leadership in the revitalization of the Roosevelt Library. Many years ago he accepted the enormous challenge of raising millions of dollars in support of building a new Visitor Center and new permanent exhibits. He, along with Anne Roosevelt and the Roosevelt Institute Board, was also instrumental in securing congressional funding for the building renovation. I know of no individual who has worked so tirelessly in support of the Roosevelt Library and its mission. We are forever indebted to Bill for his generosity and support.
Existing Permanent Exhibits to Close April 30, 2012
NEW PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITION OPENS MAY 1, 2012
This is an exciting time at the Roosevelt Presidential Library. We are undergoing a major renovation scheduled to be completed in late summer 2013. As part of the last phase of renovation, the existing permanent exhibits will close on April, 30, 2012. This is the first renovation of the Roosevelt Library building since it opened to the public in 1941. While it will not change the historic exterior of the building it will bring its infrastructure up to National Archives standards for the preservation of historic collections. The renovation will include an exciting new permanent museum exhibit that will bring a new deal to a new generation.
During the interim period we hope you enjoy our new exhibit, “The Roosevelts: Public Figures, Private Lives” — the largest photography exhibition ever assembled on the lives and public careers of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. For more information about the new exhibit visit the exhibit information page on our website or read the press release.