Continuing my quest to see the nation’s presidential libraries, my brother and I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum last weekend. Located on the banks of Boston Harbor, and featuring beautiful views of Boston’s skyline, the library houses one of the country’s most visited repositories of presidential papers, as well as a museum which contains artifacts from our country’s 35th president.
The tour began with a movie, consisting almost entirely of JFK’s own words, discussing his early life, his decision to get involved in politics, and his meteoric rise through the Democratic Party. The artifacts from those early years illustrate a privileged but undisciplined childhood, followed by a growing focus on service in the military and in government.
While I had a vague recollection of the story of his World War II PT boat heroics, the story became real with the museum’s exhibit of items and photographs from the ordeal. By far, the coolest item on display was the coconut upon which JFK carved his plea for help.
Looking around, I was surprised at the number of ways in which I have led a parallel life to the Kennedys. As you can see below, JFK also spent a lot of time on crutches (and apparently, crutch technology has not advanced much since the 1940’s…), like Jackie Kennedy, I also graduated from GW and was named “Debutante of the Year,” and, weren’t we all gifted a 15 foot sailboat on our 15th birthday by our dads???? See? The Kennedys: They’re just like you and me!!
The museum displayed a number of exhibits filled with campaign paraphernalia and newspapers documenting the election process, as well as common household items from the 1960’s.
Other exhibits chronicled the ways in which his presidency ‘modernized’ the office. For example, JFK was the first president to host live televised press conferences. Clips of his first news conference and other televised interviews showed off his obvious comfort in front of the camera, his impressive intellect, and his quick wit.
Amusingly, the televised debate between him and Richard Nixon in 1960 demonstrated that politicians 50 years ago were bickering about the exact same stuff they bicker about today. Specifically, Nixon argued that Kennedy’s proposals for healthcare reform would lead to ‘socialized medicine,’ they argued over whether Social Security could be financially viable over the long term, and they questioned one another’s plans for decreasing unemployment and growing the economy. In other words, fear not, friends. Even 50 years ago, politicians were arguing that the country was going down the toilet and only their policies could turn things around.
Oddly, the museum seemed to lack a number of artifacts I would have expected to see there. Most notably, the Oval Office desk on display was a replica (though some of the other furniture pictured below was original). I also expected to see Jackie’s famous wedding gown and more photos depicting the Kennedy kids in the White House.
Comparing my experience at the FDR library to this one, I came away a bit more impressed with the FDR museum.
Of course, it is difficult to compare the two presidencies given FDR’s incredibly lengthy tenure and JFK’s tragically short one. However, they both presided over the United States at times of great social upheaval and international tension. Yet, I felt the FDR Library did a better job explaining the problems facing the country during his time in office and showing how his policies were designed to address those issues.
With JFK’s museum, I felt there was a lot of assumed knowledge. While that might not have been a problem when the Museum first opened in the 1970’s, as time passes and the average visitor becomes someone with no personal recollection of these events, it becomes ever more important to paint a complete picture. Interestingly, the Library’s website contains tremendous detail about the issues, events, and policies that are associated with JFK’s presidency. It is the kind of detail I would expect to find in the exhibits themselves.
It seems to me if the Museum wants to remain relevant to younger people, they’re going to need to overhaul the content and modernize the means by which they display a lot of the information.
Finally, we were surprised at the very minimal discussion about JFK’s assassination and its impact on the country. The museum showed a short film which included pictures of the motorcade in Dallas and Walter Cronkite’s famous announcements regarding the President’s death, as well as some footage from the funeral, but that was it.
While I certainly understand that the family probably did not want to dwell on that aspect of his story, the fact is, the assassination was a transformative event in our nation’s history. One cannot discuss the JFK presidency without acknowledging the great impact his death had, not just at the time, but for decades after the fact. The unanswerable question, repeatedly posed and certainly worthy of discussion, is: “What would have happened had JFK not been assassinated?” I think the curators missed an important part of his legacy by not discussing the long term consequences of his untimely death.
All in all, I am glad to have visited the Museum and it has only added to my desire to see the other presidential libraries. Two down, eleven to go….
Admission is $14. It is not part of the National Park Service, so presenting your NPS Annual Pass to the cashier will get you nothing but scorn. Also, parking your car costs another $12 or $14 or whatever ridiculous fee they try to extract from you. Lucky for us, the gates were not working when we visited, so our parking was free. Ha! Take that!
** Featured image care of Maclek Lulko on Flickr.