The exhibition “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” permanently resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It also has a digital exhibition located on their website.
Physical Site: “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden”
The physical presence of the exhibition is enormous. The exhibit occupies one third of the third floor of the museum. A portion of the exhibition covers the First Ladies and their dresses. The rest of the exhibition examines the role of the president, during and after the presidency. The argument the exhibit conveys is that the presidency is more encompassing and subject to the desires of the people than the public originally realized. The physical design demonstrates the grandeur of the office, while also conveying the many roles the president fulfills. The seven rooms of the exhibit are all laid out to convey different aspects of the presidency for the public. The exhibit was well laid out and simple to navigate. The lay out did not force a single flow of traffic, but, instead, allowed the user to move from room to room easily, along your own choosing.
The exhibit started with the president as the myth and figurehead, and then moved into the checks on the president’s power. Within the first section, demonstrating the grandeur of the office, the colors were blue and yellow, much like the Oval Office. Then, you move into the second section, which demonstrated the figurehead portion of the presidency, which was very red, white, and blue, and strongly demonstrated the power of the office through the different categories and artifacts used (“Commander in Chief,” “Party Leader,” “Chief Executive,” “Manager of the Economy,” “National Leader,” “Chief Diplomat,” and “Ceremonial Head of State”). Once you moved through the president as the figurehead and myth, the president became a man again, demonstrating his life in the White House with his family. After that, you move through the president as a mortal, and handling death in the White House. Within that section, the lighting became very dark, and the mood was conveyed that the nation felt such mourning after the losses of their beloved presidents. Once you’ve moved through the mourning phase, you can see the presidency in a Hollywood view, and then see the president after the White House. These sections are come back to the yellow and blue colors.
The audience this exhibit caters to includes the young and old, and everyone in between. The Smithsonian Institution created their exhibit with the broadest spectrum of visitor possible, making it simple for children and foreigners alike to understand. The actual visitors seen on a Sunday afternoon in January included young children, parents, grandparents, some out-of-town visitors who spoke German and Russian, as well as the average American tourist.
The primary items used to communicate the idea of the gloriously burdensome presidency include personal artifacts of the former presidents (clothing, instruments, toys, etc.), campaign propaganda, political cartoons, and souvenirs related to the presidents. The presidential artifacts were key to creating the idea of the presidents as men, and not just the myths of the presidency. The placards around the artifacts explained the artifacts and what they meant to the presidents, but also contextualized the history of the periods for anybody unfamiliar with it. For example, people younger than 20 years old or people visiting from out of the country might not know that former President Bill Clinton loved to play the saxophone, but that was described for visitors next to one of his saxophones. The exhibits also used pictures, videos, and interactive sections to draw the visitors into the history.
The interactive elements of the physical exhibit include videos and some interactive screens. In the section of the president’s power, there was an interactive podium that allowed the user to “be the president” and recite a presidential speech, as well as allowed them to get their picture taken. There was also an interactive touchscreen with questions about the office of the presidency, which could all be answered within that room. There were several video screens throughout the exhibit, with one per room. The videos furthered the information explained in the exhibit room. In the room on the president’s private life in the White House, the video described the lives of the children and families of the presidents during their time in the White House. Many of the videos were produced and/or sponsored by The History Channel, which demonstrated a partnership between the museum and network to convey the presidential history. In the Hollywood section of the exhibit, the video went through the Hollywood versions of the president as compared with the popular images of the presidency since the invention of film. The final section on the life after the presidency was very limited on artifacts, but did have a video section describing the life after the presidency for recent presidents.
While the physical exhibit was highly effective and created beautifully, I would change certain aspects. As powerful as the grandeur of the first several rooms of the exhibit were, the exhibit really petered out by the time you got to the life after the presidency. The lack of artifacts combined with a simple video made the life after the presidency seem not very important. In a time where Americans are living longer and longer, especially our presidents, it is important to view what they have done and continue to do. In recent days, Jimmy Carter continued volunteering his time building houses and teaching Sunday school while battling cancer. Bill Clinton has been on the campaign trail again for his wife, Hillary as she makes another bid to become the first female president. These are men that aren’t just sitting on a plantation overlooking the Potomac anymore. They are continuing to be contributing members of society long after their presidencies have ended. That’s important to acknowledge. A way to acknowledge it might be including a social media section or a “live” history section, where there is a stream of their social media feeds or even their public appearances in the past month to six months (on late night TV, their speeches, etc.). As technology continues to evolve, so does the “office” of former president.
Digital Site: “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/home.html
The digital exhibition carries the same name as the physical one. The argument of the presidency being more encompassing definitely carries through to the website. The design of the site is a little dated, but it is useable and conveys the message.
The primary audience for this work is still broad, much like the physical exhibit. The website is catered to the average user, with minimal knowledge about the presidents as men and not just the figurehead of the United States. The website is well-catered toward students and teachers, allowing for easy movement between topics, a large amount of accurate information, as well as activities, resources, and materials for teachers to use in their classrooms. It allows the artifacts and the history to be shared with a much larger group of people that are simply unable to attend the physical exhibit. Users can easily bounce around through the site without having to follow a single straight thread.
The website gives biographies of each president, encompassed within a larger framework of the history of the major events of the United States. This was not available in the physical exhibit, probably due to the sheer amount of information and space that would’ve required. Images and artifacts that could not be included in the physical exhibit due to space or curator choosing can be viewed on the website, along with interesting facts and information about the presidents and presidency. There are interactive games, further resources, and teacher materials available on the site, which cannot be conveyed in the physical site. These interactive sections are highly enjoyable and teach the user more about the presidents. There is a game where the user can match information about the families of the presidents to the person it was about. Another section allows the user to read letters children have written to the presidents over the years. The user is also able to create your own presidential seal. Users can also play with the different roles of the president. The user is able to take away more of the idea of the president as a man through these interactive activities, as well as get little tidbits of information about the office itself. Interacting with the site’s creators is not found on this site.
The digital experience could be more effective if it was updated to a more modern web design. Otherwise, it moves very well and easily for the users. The site was created by iXL America Online, and MSN, with the help of the Smithsonian Institution and History Channel, along with donors.
Both the physical and digital exhibits demonstrate that the office of the presidency, while grand and burdensome, still houses a man who must embody the tenets of the office while still remaining true to his family and the people. The exhibits truly show the Glorious Burden of the presidency.