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“America’s Pyramids” and the Creation of Presidential Legacies

Andet forskningsprojekt | 06/04/2018

This article outlines a new research project concerning the American system of presidential libraries and their role in the creation of presidential legacies. It also discusses, in more general terms, some of the ways in which memories and commemorations of past presidents are being constructed, institutionalised – and sometimes weaponised.
By Associate Professor in American History, PhD Niels Bjerre-Poulsen, Center for American Studies/Department of History, University of Southern Denmark

Furthermore, the article discusses the legal framework for the system of presidential libraries, as well as some of the inherent tensions in the mandated partnerships between private presidential foundations and the federal government. 

One source of tension is the fact that the presidential foundations often serve particular political interests in the shaping of presidential legacies, while the public interest requires exhibitions at the libraries and museums that live up to accepted standards for the dissemination of historical knowledge. 

The article illustrates this by using a longstanding conflict at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum concerning the Watergate scandal that in 1974 forced Nixon to leave the White House in disgrace.  

“Historians are far from the only ones involved in suggesting what to remember – and how to remember it.” – Niels Bjerre-Poulsen

American presidents are most often presented as towering figures in the nation’s history. Many Americans tend to divide it into different eras based on who was president at the time. Some presidents are even seen as the embodiment of a national mood - a zeitgeist.

Archival boxes inside the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, Texas. The design is supposed to signal transparency in government (Copyright: Niels Bjerre-Poulsen).

LBJ Presidential Library, located at University of Texas at Austin, Texas. The architect is Gordon Bunshaft, and the building was dedicated in 1971.(Copyright: LBJ Presidential Library).

Such public perceptions do not emerge from a random process. As the American historian Barry Schwartz has noted, various forms of commemoration help “transform historical facts into objects of attachment by defining their meaning and explaining how people should feel about them.”

In this process, historians are far from the only ones involved in suggesting what to remember – and how to remember it: The presidents themselves are often actively involved, and so are family members, former associates, home town boosters, memorial societies, and not least the political parties.

Weaponising the Past

In the spring of 2017, I had the great fortune of receiving a travel grant from the Carlsberg Foundation that enabled me to do research at nine of the thirteen current presidential libraries and museums in The United States. 

“Thanks to the grant, I could collect an extensive amount of archival materials from libraries that are scattered across the country. This great opportunity to gather such an extensive selection of sources – most of which have never been used before – has enabled me to join a group of distinguished historians and political scientists from the United States, Great Britain and Denmark,” says Niels Bjerre-Poulsen.

The Presidential Library System (Copyright: National Archives and Records Administration).

Together we are now in the process of organising a research project on the creation and political uses of presidential legacies. The goal is to make original research contributions to a fairly unexplored area of Presidential Studies.

While some of us are mostly concerned with how historical memory is being constructed and institutionalised, others are more interested in how it is being weaponised – that is, used as part of a political strategy.

My first contribution to this legacy project concerns the federal system of presidential libraries and museums.   My goal was to explore the roles of the libraries and their stakeholders in the process of creating a “usable past”.

One of the concerns in my research is the actual planning, design and construction of the presidential libraries themselves:

"These buildings are interesting hybrids: They house presidential papers and other collections administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), but they are also what presidential historian Robert Caro has aptly called "America's pyramids, erected to the memory of the country's rulers," says Niels Bjerre-Poulsen. 

William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, Little Rock, Arkansas. The architect is James Polshek, and the library was dedicated in 2004 (Copyright: Clinton Presidential Library) Read more

The site selection for the libraries is in itself a revealing process to follow. Since the presidents are essentially building their own libraries, they are also free to choose the location.

Most of them have been acutely aware of the fact they will not only host research facilities, but they also serve as tourist attractions and celebratory monuments,” says Niels Bjerre-Poulsen. 

Among its attractions, several of the museums have replicas of the Oval Office and so-called “decision theatres,” where visitors can re-enact crucial executive decisions such as whether or not to invade Iraq in an alleged attempt to find weapons of mass destruction (The George W. Bush Presidential Library). 

In the upcoming Barack Obama Presidential Library, which will be located in Chicago, all the archives will be digitised and available online. Therefore, the main focus will be on different forms of community outreach rather than research.

A section from the controversial Watergate Exhibition at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (Copyright: Niels Bjerre-Poulsen).

However, the museums do have to follow certain federal guidelines under which materials are supposed to both “explain the history of a President and his period.,” and since 1986, the federal government has had the ability to reject exhibitions that do not live up to its standards for the dissemination of historical knowledge.  

History, Warts and All?

The most obvious example of a clash between private and public interests can be found at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, which opened in 1990 at Nixon’s birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. 

For many years, it was solely run by family members and former aides to the president through the Nixon Foundation. Due to disagreements over the exhibits, the presidential archives stayed in Maryland. 

The crucial point of contention was the requirement of a display on the Watergate scandal, which in 1974 had ultimately forced President Nixon to leave The White House in disgrace. 

In 2010, the Nixon archives finally moved to California, when arrangements had been made for a Watergate exhibit at the museum. However, tensions between the interests of the foundation and the educational standards set by the federal government lingered on. 

The Presidential Library System

The American system of privately erected and federally maintained presidential libraries is unique. It was established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939 and later formalised by the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955. 

Previously, the status of presidential papers had been dubious. Many presidents had simply regarded them as their private property once they left the White House.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. (Photo: David Coleman/Alamy).

Concerned about public access to these valuable sources, Roosevelt in 1938 decided to donate land for a library and museum at his own birthplace in Hyde Park, New York. The museum opened two years later and the archives opened for research in 1946.

Since 1964, the presidential libraries have been administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, and today the federal government spends approximately 100 million dollars a year on them. 

This system has occasionally come under fire. In the 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War, the fear of nuclear war became an argument for spreading the national archives at presidential libraries across the country.

A prospect for the upcoming Barack Obama Presidential Center, Chicago, Illinois, which will open in 2020 (Copyright: The Obama Foundation).

“However, in the 1980s, fiscal conservatives objected to the system: It was too expensive, they argued, and besides, not all presidents were great and deserving of their own political mausoleum,” says Niels Bjerre-Poulsen. 

The plans of centralising all presidential records in one place were ultimately rejected, but in order to lessen the financial burden of the taxpayers, the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 made it a requirement for the libraries to have affiliated private endowments. 

This has increased the need for both direct mail fundraising among smaller donors, as well as for large corporate donations.

“This study of “America’s pyramids” will hopefully help our understanding of both the creation and uses of presidential legacies. And despite the particular nature of the American Presidency, it is also my expectation that the larger research project will add more general insights to the study of the forces that shape public memory, as well as to our understanding of how commemoration becomes a political tool,” ends Niels Bjerre-Poulsen.

Related Articles by Niels Bjerre-Poulsen: 

“The Road to Mount Rushmore: The Conservative Commemoration Crusade for Ronald Reagan,” in Cheryl Hudson and Gareth Davies, Ronald Reagan and the 1980s (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp.209-227.