Letter: Obama library is an archive, not a presentation

By Letter to the Editor

In “Obama Library is a Compromise Not Worth Making” (1/17/14), Andrew Young fundamentally misunderstands the nature of presidential libraries. They are at once libraries and museums. While certain artifacts and documents may be presented as part of a narrative in the museum space, the documents and communications accumulated during a presidency are presented to researchers without mediation or interpretation of any kind. Presidential libraries are repositories for the ephemera of government. Every memo, note, doodle, and letter is carefully filed away, with the expectation that its contents will shed light on the president’s term. Within these archives, professional staff labors to create transparency, processing Freedom of Information requests and declassifying documents to satisfy a curious or even skeptical public. The avalanche of information the White House produces in a single day is staggering, and presidential archives are important places for researchers and staff to untangle a presidency’s complicated implications over the following decades. These spaces serve not as temples for the leaders they describe, but as forums for the discussion and analysis of their way of governing.

The museum space, where interpretation of these materials can take place, is distinct from this archive. Using Young’s example of the Regenstein Library, we can understand his fallacy. Writing off the importance of the Obama Presidential Library based on the potential for a positively skewed and curated narrative of his presidency is like tossing out the entire contents of the Regenstein based on the content of one of those display cases by the stairs.

Even if we take Young’s criticism to apply strictly to the museum portion of a proposed library complex, his assumptions are faulty. It is true that the act of curation can reveal bias, but this is not a fault, only a point for further debate. It is this debate, and not the content of the museum itself, that shapes a president’s legacy as it passes from politics to history.

Take, for example, our newest presidential library. I recently visited the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, and was surprised by one of the museum’s first featured objects: hanging chads. A tiny plastic vial of punched paper and a mispunched ballot lie beneath that fateful picture of a Florida election official attempting to discern voter intent from a constellation of indentations. What grand story of Bush’s presidency do these artifacts tell? To a viewer predisposed to support Bush’s agenda, they recall those tense hours when Bush’s victory was in jeopardy. For one skeptical of the results, they may prompt one of those familiar sighs of what might have been, or a forlorn “poor Tipper.” Regardless of the labeling or other interpretation, the viewer alone is entrusted to draw meaning from these artifacts. While it is true that the selection of objects or documents for presentation tells a story, it is also true that objects, like the chads, speak for themselves.

The same is true for other historical objects enshrined there. The Port Authority Police Department badge belonging to an officer who gave his life helping others to safety on 9/11. A still life painted by Senator Ted Kennedy and sent to Laura Bush: simple but for a distinct yellow tint, a result of radiation from the anthrax screening treatment given to all White House mail. Though an incomplete picture, selections of meaningful objects have always had a way of telling a complete truth. A museum cannot hold an object to represent every moment of a president’s tenure. Omission is a natural, if regrettable, part of curation.

Given this reality, it is understandable that museums would be devoted to accomplishments rather than failures. One can hardly expect George H.W. Bush’s museum to be shadowed by the specter of the elusive Saddam Hussein. But a friend who worked at the presidential library of the elder Bush recalls an archive box full of Saddam Hussein voodoo dolls. The stuff of scandal and missed opportunity may not be on a pedestal, but that does not mean it has been erased from history. A 2011 revamping of the Nixon Presidential Library reveals the incriminating tapes that doomed Nixon’s legacy, allowing visitors to decide for themselves the impact of Watergate on the president and the nation. This is key. Museums are evolving institutions. With the entire weight of the archives behind them, presidential museums can respond to new revelations, changing implications, and the continuing impact of presidents’ leadership. The “Mission Accomplished” banner may not be on display now, but rest assured: It is swaddled somewhere, safe and acid-free, waiting to tell its story.

All of this is to say: An affiliation with the Obama Presidential Library and Museum is not a compromise. It is an opportunity we must not pass up. Proximity to this site would give UChicago students and South Siders a front-row seat to the fascinating process of history making. The partnership of the University and the Library, two great research institutions, would benefit each tremendously, as scholars from around the world are drawn to Hyde Park to study these dynamic times in which we live. We must not miss our chance due to superficial political concerns. Politics are temporary, but history is forever.

—Kirsten Madsen, class of 2013