After finishing my time at Worlds of Fun I had planned a route which would include two U.S. Presidential Libraries that would be on my way through to Colorado. Truman’s was right here on the edge of the Kansas City metro area in Independence, Missouri (Harry’s hometown). Geography would track with chronology this time, for I then continued on to Eisenhower’s in Abilene, Kansas (Dwight’s hometown).
Why Presidential Libraries? Well, first of all, for several years I was an exhibit designer, so all sorts of museums are interesting to me from that perspective. Secondly, thematic design has increasingly been incorporated over the past two decades into exhibits all over the world; this was the kind of work I was engaged in. So I always like to see what’s turned up. Lastly, just like the Great Lodges of the National Parks, a Presidential Library (and the aura of the U.S. Presidency itself) is sort of a theme all its own.
The Truman Show
The only Presidential Library I had visited before was Ronald Reagan’s in Simi Valley, California. It’s curious—there’s a certainly amount of fandom I found, sort of a “collect ‘em all” attitude similar to how people feel about the National Park System. They even sell a passport which you can have stamped at each library. You would think this would appeal primarily to children, but I saw plenty of adults queuing up to get their stamp at the Reagan Library. Myself included.
Unfortunately, I had long forgotten that I purchased one of these passports during my visit. So no Harry and Ike stamps for me. I get it; I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. Still, you have to take Presidential Libraries with a huge grain of salt, at least if you’re serious about history. The approach to these places is strictly hagiographic—you wouldn’t be wrong to halfway assume there were entombed Pharaohs on the grounds.
The Postwar era through to the Cold War and the Space Race might be my favorite time period in American history, so I was well-primed for these two libraries. It was also nifty to be able to visit both on the same day in not only geographic but also chronological order, so to speak. A geek’s dream.
Overall, the exhibits struck me as more formal than playful, and the graphics felt two or three decades old. Still, the content was comprehensive—even if I darted through most of it. Not for lack of interest, I just know the content already.
It’s fun to see cultural stereotypes picked apart and converted into didactic dioramas so many years on. I wonder what 9/11 will one day look like in this context. Or millenials. Or hipsters. Will this scene be an IKEA kitchen with a Starbucks cup on the table, an iPhone, and a yoga mat rolled up next to a Whole Foods canvas bag? It’s hilarious to think about. Set your time circuits for sometime in the 2070s.
After passing through so many purely graphic displays, I was pleased to come across some genuine experiential design using the environmental cues of theming. Here visitors experience a recovering post-war Europe still reeling from the conflict. Shortages, rubble, rations. You literally walk through all of it, feeling the battered textures on the walls, lowering your head to crawl through holes. The message is clear—we (the Americans) were the only ones left standing.
And who, of course, comes to save the day? President Truman! The next large hall dedicated to the Berlin Blockade and Airlift (1948–1949) was especially cool. This was one of the defining events of Harry’s years in office, and the library has handled it admirably. From the ceiling are hung various objects in certain quantities—a physical kind of information design—that conveys just how much was delivered into Berlin during the crisis. I’d done some of this type of design work myself for an exhibit called Above & Below at the Oakland Museum of California, along with the help of my good friend Tom Klump of inktankdesign.
More on him in a moment.
The other solid example of thematic design and staging was in the “whistlestop room.” Content was integrated into a display resembling a train depot platform.
Adjacent was a diorama of the back of a train with audio clips playing from the bullhorns. But this isn’t Disney—no audio animatronic presidents here. And again, the black and white photographic cutouts just reek of mid-eighties museum design.
As you prepare to exit the museum proper, outside to the garden grounds and gravesite, there is a nearly lifesize picture of Truman crossing the downtown Main Street of what looks like to be Independence, Missouri. Even at a Presidential Library, we can’t escape the mythology of Main Street, recontextualized and sweetened as it is by the Disney Version (despite the lack of pontificating robots).
Official grave sites are quite solemn, and design-wise, identical. The Eternal Flame is a standard signifier. Still, this was restrained and respectful; there was no flowery prose or grand statues. I’ve seen much worse.
Harry Truman died in 1972. His wife, Bess, passed away ten years later and was then buried beside him in the library’s courtyard.
The absolute thematic highlight of the Truman Library was the 1:1 Oval Office set. They claim it looks “exactly as it did when Truman left office” in 1953, and I believe them. There was a similar, also period-accurate display at the Reagan Library. But because of the older technology and furniture (man I was grooving on those office chairs!) this one just felt so much cooler.
Where does this kind of representation fall on the thematic spectrum of FAKE-REAL? It’s not fake-fake (obviously not real and proudly so) nor is it real-real (the actual office in Washington D.C. at the White House; reconstructed, moved, or otherwise). That leaves us with FAKE-real (like a foam tree on a movie set) or REAL-fake (that’s really the same make and model television as Harry had to the left of his desk in 1953, but not the actual unit).
An Oval Office set like this in a Presidential Library is the ultimate REAL-fake, just like the recently restored Apollo Mission Control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. By referencing archival materials, period photographs, and consulting with those who were there, researchers went to antique shops and online auctions to find such-and-such ashtray and so-and-so sportcoat hung on such-and-such chair at so-and-so’s desk.
And so with Harry’s office. The settings are all correct, they’re just not the actual items. Or maybe some of them are? It’s always an amalgam. It’s production design by way of Mad Men.
One absolutely genuine artifact (made abundantly clear by the formal presentation, thick glass, and alarmed vitrine casing) is Harry Truman’s famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign. According to the library, “it appeared at different times on his desk until late in his administration.” They elaborate:
The sign "The Buck Stops Here" that was on President Truman's desk in his White House office was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. Fred A. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Mr. Truman, saw a similar sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the Warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman.
Naturally, full-size replicas are available in the library’s gift shop. Did I buy one? Absolutely.
A New Tru
A bit further back, I mentioned Tom Klump of inktank design. As it turns out, earlier in 2019 he was invited to work with Gallagher & Associates on a redesign project for the Truman Library as part of their $25-million capital campaign. My instincts when I visited that the museum needed updating—especially the graphics—ended up being spot on. I asked Tom recently about his work on the project:
What was your role working with Gallagher & Associates on the new Truman Presidential Library?
Tom Klump, inktank design: I was brought on as a contract exhibit designer during the construction documentation phase. I worked under the associate studio director and alongside a full-time graphic designer as well as copywriters and 3D designers. The senior designer would hand off draft designs and scale elevations and it was my job to update the designs to reflect client comments or create anew following the established look and feel. Generally, I flowed in script and images and designed graphic layouts whether they be dimensional panels, information graphics, entire walls, interactive exhibits or—as with the artifact cases—coordinate the pieces from the collection with the graphics to ensure everything fit.
The entire museum appears to have been redesigned, at least according to the virtual walk-thru. Were there any elements in particular that you felt needed the most updating? Or did you not look at the prior galleries.
Tom: The entire museum has essentially been gutted and redesigned. I only know the galleries from site survey photos, and the Google Maps walk-thru (which helped me immensely) but everything was reimagined to educate the visitor. From the new entrance to the interior galleries and graphics, it will be an entirely new experience for them.
What’s the new typographic approach? Is there is a museum-wide brand system or are you using period-appropriate typography in the exhibit areas?
Tom: The typography adheres to templated, museum-wide standards so it does not change drastically between sections. With only three typefaces doing the work throughout, the type has been kept organized, simple, straightforward, and restrained. In terms of modern museum standards it is a big improvement over the existing space.
Are there any aspects of the new design which you feel are particularly themed? I’m thinking of vernacular graphics and environments, like we’ve done in the past at the Oakland Museum of California.
Tom: No, I’d say it is not as drastically themed. All fourteen sections are set apart by wall and/or ceiling treatments as well as a specific color palette and the content; they’re cohesive while standing apart from each other. Although it should be noted, I only worked on about half of the sections, and really didn’t see much else being done. I believe the Berlin Airlift section will be themed nicely and the whistle stop train car will remain. The reproduction of his Oval Office of course remains unchanged.
The above video clip is a a virtual fly-through of the new Truman Library as presented in December, 2018. The library closed on July 23, 2019 to begin the re-installation process and plans to reopen sometime in the summer of 2020.
I Like Ike
After these few hours spent at the Truman Library, I raced across the Plains for what seemed like forever (but was only about a half-day) to Abilene, Kansas. Although he was born in Texas, the Eisenhower family moved to Abilene when future general and President Dwight was about two years old, and Ike considers it his hometown.
The library is administered by a non-profit foundation which Ike founded after World War II, before he was even president. The grounds are extensive—far bigger than the Truman site—and have the feeling of a late sixties corporate campus. This could be Xerox at the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto, California. It was certainly hot enough that day.
I suppose if pressed, I would admit that I Like Ike. He kept America at relative peace during a very tense time during the Cold War, and he played a lot of golf. He was tired, and he really didn’t want to be president. I’m especially a fan of his famous farewell address televised live on January 17, 1961 in which he warned of a growing “military–industrial complex.”
But that man is seemingly nowhere to be found at this museum. In fact, the image you first encounter of Ike reminded me much more of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, specifically the 1956 British film adaptation. His visage is massive, in stark black and white, taking up nearly and entire wall. I’m sure the museum thought they were picking a friendly, thoughtful pose. Instead President Dwight D. Eisenhower looks remarkably like Big Brother.
The museum is divided into two major sections: Eisenhower the general and Ike the president. There is a great emphasis in the former less on interpretation and more on “holy relics” like this table on which World War II treaty negotiations took place.
Or the general’s 1942 olive green Cadillac staff car.
Moving into the second, presidential section, there are more thematic elements, more staging, and more nostalgia. This movie marquee reminded me very much of the design I worked on for the “Hollywoodland” section of the Gallery of California History.
This Mid-Century Modern den is as close to a “REAL-fake” as there is at the Eisenhower Library, at least that I could photograph. His home office—where he worked after his presidency on a farm adjacent to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—is recreated elsewhere in the exhibit, but I couldn’t get a shot in focus through the thick glass. This is the verisimilitude of period movie set; a stage of props which are accurate as possible.
I was wondering how the library was going to approach the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The curators appear to have focused on the aspect of domestic bomb shelters and U.S. Civil Defense infrastructure, and less on Eisenhower’s foreign policy. The dioramas were pretty terrific, and there were vintage graphics and ephemera, the kind which are archived on the always lovely CONELRAD.
Where the exhibits felt dated was in the treatment of the Civil Rights Movement, women, and multiculturalism. Some of the panel text was actually kind of cringeworthy. I hope the museum gets a content facelift soon enough just like the Truman Library.
The larger grounds around the museum are almostly laughingly worshipful. It kind of felt like I was on the set of a sci-fi film; a distant planet with a statue of an alien society’s Glorious Founder. The massive lettering on the ground, CHAMPION OF PIECE reminds me of the old saw about boxer Muhammad Ali saying “I’m the greatest.” Well, not if you have to say it.
What I did dig around the campus was the variety of modernist sans serif dimensional lettering, though none of it matches. Here we have the venerable Futura Bold.
And also a very light weight of what appears to be Trade Gothic. Nicely tracked out.
However this sans serif (not Helvetica Light but it’s close) is tight letter spacing in the extreme. Did they order the wrong size letters for the slab of concrete they had? It certainly looks like it.
Where I found the library grounds to be the most low-key (and respectful) was at Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower’s final resting place. It’s called a “Place of Meditation” rather than a chapel or church. And although there are Biblical reference scattered throughout the interior, the presentation is decidedly non-denominational, even deist. Ike died in 1969 and his widow followed a decade later (oddly, just the same as with the Trumans).
There’s a lovely and calming fountain out front. The bright aqua tile is very late sixties.
Some more mid-century lettering.
The interior has the sort of sixties modern Protestant design with abstract stained glass patterns. It really reminded me of the church in the wedding scene at the end of The Graduate (1967). It was charming, and also really transported to me around the time that Ike passed away. It was really tasteful—color me impressed.
My final stop at the sprawling Eisenhower Presidential Library complex was at the requisite gift shop, where I found this gem of a bumper sticker. The joke (I suppose) is that American party politics have shifted greatly since the post-war years—I miss that era’s Republican president, and even (shocking!) the Democrat one too. It’s probably popular here in Kansas.