Last month I finally got around to visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill. (I went on a behind-the-scenes media tour six months before the museum opened in April 2005, but that doesn’t really count because most of the exhibits weren’t in place yet.) All the exhibits and shows inside the museum are of high quality, but I was disappointed because there should have been more. Lincoln is one of the most written-about people in history, yet the ALPM is one of the least comprehensive presidential museums I’ve toured.
If you are an Illinois resident interested in visiting the museum, try to do so when your county will get you half off the $10 adult admission price. (Click here for details.) I suspect the museum is more impressive if you only have to pay $5 to get in the door.
In December 2006, I wrote a travel story for The Times about two other presidential museums I’ve visited. What follows is my take on the places commemorating the presidencies of Harry Truman and Gerald Ford.
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History buffs thirsting for presidental knowledge in the Midwest beyond the Land of Lincoln can get their fix in several surrounding states.
I recently visited two of the Midwest’s presidential museums: Harry S. Truman’s in Independence, Mo., and Gerald R. Ford’s in Grand Rapids, Mich. While I found both museums worth touring, what you’re probably thinking is true: Though the Truman museum covers the birth of the Atomic Age, it’s the Ford Museum that bombs in comparison.
Naturally, the Truman museum has a lot more source material to work with than the Ford museum. While the Ford presidency had a few memorable, if not controversial, moments, it was mostly forgettable. Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Truman inherited World War II and, ultimately, the decision whether to use an atomic bomb as a weapon of warfare.
During two terms as president, Truman also oversaw the Korean War and the start of the Cold War, witnessed the signing of the United Nations charter and was involved in negotiations to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Truman’s Fair Deal proposal called for, among other things, an increase in minimum wage and health insurance for all Americans, while his secretary of state, George Marshall, unveiled a plan that stimulated economic recovery in post-World War II Europe.
The United States also desegregated its military and recognized Israel as a country during the Truman presidency. So you see the museum’s planners had plenty to work with.
The Truman museum presents all this in an interactive fashion, making it less stale than a traditional “look, learn and move to the next artifact” museum, and probably more accessible to a society that collectively has an increasingly shorter attention span.
The first of the interactive displays is about the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Video monitors show footage of the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and audio clips of Truman and others discussing the decision to use the atomic bombs.
Visitors to the Truman museum also have the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion via a comments book. I don’t know what ultimately happens to those comments — maybe they’re stored in a back room for historical purposes — but it is a nice touch to the museum, and it’s interesting to flip back through previous pages to read what others had to say about this controversial issue.
Throughout the museum there are other video displays with footage from Truman’s presidency. Two in particular stood out for me. One was Truman’s farewell speech to the nation, played on a monitor shaped like a 1950s-era television. The other was a montage of commercials and TV show intros from the ’50s, providing a glimpse of (or a look back at, depending how old the viewer is) what televised entertainment was like in the heyday of “I Love Lucy.”
There also is an interactive display that quizzes visitors on what they learned at the Truman museum, in the lower level where the former president’s personal life and early years in politics are chronicled.
All things Truman in Independence, Mo., are not limited to the presidential museum. After leaving the White House in 1953, Truman retired to Independence, where he resided until his death in December 1972. Although the retired president was easily Independence’s most recognized citizen, he was seen walking around town almost daily.
The city capitalized on this in the 1990s, creating the Truman Historic Walking Trail. There are some curiosity stops along the way, such as the home where Truman and his wife, Bess, lived in retirement, the Jackson County Courthouse where Truman presided as a judge, and the barber shop where he got his hair cut.
The Ford Presidential Museum pales in comparison to the Truman museum, though that’s not really unexpected, since Ford’s presidency pales in comparison to Truman’s, too.
Still, the Ford museum is worth checking out, although it may dredge up some bad memories about how Ford came to power in the Oval Office.
One of the more interesting things to be found at the Ford museum are the tools used in the Watergate break-in, an unexpected treat considering I (and many others, I’m sure) thought those would be in the Nixon Presidential Museum or a police evidence locker somewhere collecting dust. The tools are a nice kickoff to an interactive display chronicling Ford’s rise to power. There are plenty of documents to read and footage of TV news coverage to watch.
The most interesting parts of the Ford museum deal with the 38th president’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, his offer of amnesty to draft dodgers, his role in the Warren Commission’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination, and America’s bicentennial, which came and went during Ford’s presidency.
Probably the most fascinating artifact in the museum, though, comes from Vietnam and is in an exhibit about the fall of Saigon. If you’ve ever seen news footage of when Americans and some Vietnamese refugees escaped to helicopters using a staircase atop the U.S. embassy in Vietnam — well, you can see the actual staircase in the Ford museum now.
I was alive when Saigon fell, but am too young to remember anything about it firsthand. I do remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though, and there are a couple chunks of that on display at the Ford museum, too.
For children there’s an interactive cabinet room where they can take a quiz about what they learned at the Ford museum. For adults, there’s a display about Betty Ford’s alcoholism.
And for those looking for the Ford Presidential Library — it’s in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s the only case in which a former president’s museum and library are not on the same grounds.