(Photo credit: View from inside the atrium of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, courtesy Erinc Salor, Flickr Creative Commons)
Anyone who is a fan of John F. Kennedy and his presidency is going to love the JFK Library and Museum in Boston. It’s like a physical evocation of Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” Exhibitions and galleries abound in the building, covering such iconic early ’60s topics as the space race, the creation of the Peace Corps and Kennedy’s historic presidential visit to Ireland. The whole place so evokes the optimism of that period in American history that I found myself wishing I could be transported back in time to see it for myself.
John F. Kennedy still has that effect on people, even 50 years after his death and even with people, like me, who were born overseas and after he had been killed. As we approach the anniversary of that momentous assassination it’s useful to consider one of the most tangible national memorials to the legacy of the 35th president: the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
As with all presidential libraries, the one for JFK acts as the official repository for correspondence and original papers associated with the Kennedy Administration. In Kennedy’s time the whole idea of creating presidential libraries was still relatively new. Only four other such libraries were in existence: those associated with Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kennedy wanted his library to be a true home for scholarly research as well as a museum containing many of the historical artifacts associated with his presidency.
Kennedy began work on choosing the site just weeks before his assassination. Following his death, donors around the world pledged millions of dollars to the creation of his library and museum. (Contributions eventually reached $20 million.) The Kennedy family took the lead in looking at ways to construct a museum and library that would serve as a fitting memorial to JFK’s life. A year later, I. M. Pei was chosen as the architect. But years of delay and controversy followed as costs went up and the museum site was changed from Harvard to the Dorchester Bay Peninsula, out by the University of Massachusetts at Boston. It wasn’t till June of 1977 that ground was broken on the site. The museum was finally opened in 1979, 16 years after Kennedy’s death.
The building itself is a large but simple, white angulated structure with a square-sided glass pavilion that dominates its view from three sides. The dark glass of the pavilion contrasts sharply with the white sides of the rest of the building. It’s a very High Modern building. I wouldn’t call it elegant, but nor would I call it brutalist. From the outside it looks quite stark, though it’s not unattractive and from some angles it can appear quite stunning. Its location on a piece of flat land by the water, removed from any other buildings, only makes its sharp, geometric outlines stick out all the more.
The JFK library is run by the National Archives and Records Administration, a branch of the federal government. NARA runs the libraries for 13 of the most recent former presidents, going back to Herbert Hoover. The George W. Bush Presidential Center is the most recent addition, having been opened in May 2013. Many presidents from earlier periods have also had commemorative libraries and museums opened on their behalf in recent years, including Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and Woodrow Wilson. These sites are typically operated by state governments, historical societies, or private foundations. Franklin Roosevelt was the first modern president to donate presidential papers and effects to the nation. Truman also decided to place his presidential effects under the federal umbrella (and, like FDR, he provided land and raised funds to build the facility). Since the 1950s, three Acts of Congress—the Presidential Libraries acts of 1955 and 1986 and the Presidential Records Act of 1978—have strongly encouraged American presidents to follow suit. Even Richard Nixon’s library in Yorba Linda, originally run by a private foundation, was brought within the NARA system in 2007.
The JFK Museum and Library’s stark exterior hides an enormous and enormously fascinating array of exhibits and original artifacts inside. The seven permanent exhibitions cover subjects such as the campaign trail for the 1960 election, the space race, and an exhibit devoted to the JFK’s First Lady, Jackie.
Television plays a large part in the museum’s story of how Kennedy reached out to America and the world. He famously won the first ever set of televised presidential debates—against Republican opponent Richard Nixon. Also, as the museum’s web site notes, “John F. Kennedy was the first president to effectively use the new medium of television to speak directly to the American people through live televised press conferences.” One exhibit presents multiple video samples of his many famous speeches, while another focuses on press conferences where he responded to reporters’ questions about the key issues of the day. I was also fascinated by the exhibit showing the original CBS election night newsroom used by CBS to broadcast results of the 1960 election. And of course the museum conveys the horror of the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination—when, in our common collective memory of the era, everything seemed to start to go wromg.
As I said, I loved the evocation of the early 1960s and the sense of optimism that this museum successfully captured—whether this was on campaign buttons or covers of Life magazine or grainy black-and-white TV images. This was a time when it seemed America could do anything, and whatever America did it did for the greater good. Of course that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but nevertheless Kennedy—together with Jackie—had a more profound and positive impact on world opinion than any president since. I think many people in America miss that, even if they don’t quite know it.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Available at http://www.jfklibrary.org/
Presidential Libraries. National Archives. Available at http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/visit/
Carter Wiseman (2001). I.M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture. New York: H.N. Abrams.