I had hoped to get my letter published in the New York Times, but alas, the gatekeepers seem to have shut me out so now I’m free to publish it myself. On February 19, the New York Times “Obama and his Library: Go Small,” an editorial by Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. After analyzing the creeping growth of presidential libraries and museums since FDR, he makes the case that President Obama should set himself apart by going small. It’s worth a read, but here’s the key part:
Rather than a memorial, Roosevelt conceived of his library as a Big House. This compelling image has not been improved upon. Although the original displays included such arcane objects as Roosevelt’s christening gown, there was no attempt to tell the entire story of his presidency, the New Deal or his role in the Second World War. Modern presidential libraries, on the other hand, want to describe everything. Yet there is something futile about trying to encapsulate a president’s life and accomplishments in a single building. Our knowledge about (and changing assessment of) any president are shaped by many sources: not only memoirs, biographies and declassified papers but also movies and even television docudramas. Exhibition designers are awfully good at interactive displays, but the world (and historians) will have the final say. There are reports that Mr. Obama used to be skeptical of having a library at all; a bold move would be to deposit his papers at the central National Archives and forgo a library. (The National Archives and Records Administration manages the 13 presidential libraries, which are built with private funds….) Failing that, he should set himself apart by thinking small or, at least, smaller. Mr. Obama has written a moving book about his early life; there’s no need to retell that story. His library should be more of an archive and less of a museum, more of a house, less of a shrine. In an austere age, a modest library could be the grandest statement of all.
And, while I could go on at great length about this subject, here’s my under-150-word-response as submitted to the Times:
RE: Obama and his Library: Go Small
Mr. Rybczynski is thinking architecture, not concept. Ronald Reagan was well-known prior to becoming president; a star in a big screen age. President Obama and his team mastered the small-screen age, where ideas easily reach beyond a physical presence. A small footprint doesn’t preclude a big idea. The president is too young for a memorial, and a monument isn’t his style—but personal artifacts are powerful, and essential to make real this president’s frequently-doubted history. Just because he wrote an autobiography doesn’t mean that’s the only way to tell that story. As an exhibit developer, I’d organize objects, images, video, and digital experiences in clusters around ideas—for example lessons Mr. Obama learned from life events and how he applied them. The goal? To show people—whether physically or virtually present—how to take action on issues they care about. The lesson? The improbable is not impossible. Go for it.
Since submitting my failed bid for minor fame, I’ve been riffing Roosevelt’s concept of a Big House. Here’s a solution that would get the hopeful host cities to stop fighting: create a new library building–whatever size it needs to be–wherever it makes most sense. Then open the Obamas’ Chicago house to the public as part museum, part meeting/teaching space. Do the same in Honolulu, New York, DC, or any other city that’s interested. Hell, it could be a 50-state strategy. Take the museum to the people, so they don’t have to be able to afford a trip to a distant state in order to participate. Each house could have a few artifacts, but mostly they’d be community activism incubators. The National Archives could administer the main library and the Chicago house as the two key sites. The others–probably more modest–could be administered locally.