How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory
When Bill Clinton, flanked by Presidents Bush past and present, stood in the rain in Little Rock to open his presidential library, the moment seemed to transcend the partisan fray. The imposing structure itself was carefully crafted to play up Clintons accomplishments and legacy, while downplaying the impeachment affair that shadowed his second term. That focus—on the higher purposes, meanings, and accomplishments of a particular presidency—also deeply reflected the spirit of most other presidential libraries and memorials.
Expanding on this essential theme, Benjamin Hufbauer explores the visual and material cultures of presidential commemoration—memorials and monuments, libraries and archives—and the problematic ways in which presidents themselves have largely taken over their own commemoration. Describing how presidential commemoration has evolved over the past century, Hufbauer reviews the making and meaning of the Lincoln Memorial, the development of Franklin Roosevelts archives into the first federal presidential library and museum, and the imperial implications of LBJs truly monumental library in Austin. He contrasts the recent $20 million reinvention of the Truman Library, designed to boldly tackle controversial issues related to racism, McCarthyism, and nuclear anxiety, with the Nixon Librarys and Reagan Librarys efforts to minimize fallout from the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. He also provides the first detailed study of the meaning and influence of the Smithsonians popular First Ladies exhibit.
“This excellent book argues that the commemoration of U.S. presidents has undergone a crucial shift since World War II, thanks to the invention of and multiplication of the ‘unusual hybrid commemorative institution’ of the presidential library or library-museum. . . . Edited with commendable concision, the text presents its arguments through economical case studies. . . . Besides its worthwhile content, the book is a pleasure to hold and read, a tribute to sound production values. . . . The writing is clean, effectively blending fact and theoretical reflection. The reference material is also good: notes are substantial and worth reading in themselves . . . and the bibliography is impressive. . . . Read it!”
—American Historical Review
“Hufbauer displays a depth of knowledge and understanding that allows his conclusions to resonate far beyond the ‘for’ or ‘against’ stance that characterizes almost everything else written about these peculiarly American institutions. . . . Within the context of the argument that ‘presidential libraries are temples,’ Hufbauer’s descriptions of various libraries and exhibits raise questions of cultural importance about the way that executive power has evolved.”
—Libraries & the Cultural RecordSee all reviews...
“The book is worth reading for its case studies describing how the presidential libraries of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson were created and designed and, in the case of the Truman library, reinterpreted some years later. In those chapters, Hufbauer’s visual and critical approach is extremely effective.”
—Journal of American History
“This very insightful analysis of federal presidential libraries considers them as mnemonic engines of commemoration as well as functional museums and archives. Even more telling, Hufbauer proposes that they are symbols of power in an era when presidential power has increased dramatically and when the US has become the most powerful nation in the world. Presidential libraries bespeak president’s personalities.”
“Ranks alongside Edward T. Linenthal’s Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum and Thomas Desjardin’s These Honored Dead: How Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. . . . This book has opened the door to serious consideration of the roles of what heretofore Hufbauer aptly calls ‘a happy meal version of presidential history.’ It is well for the profession and the general public at large that the author raises difficult questions while challenging the status quo of such institutions.”
“Hats off to Benjamin Hufbauer for finally giving Presidential libraries their scholarly due. Hufbauer’s fascinating study shows how these widely scattered sites of memory expose the basic tensions of American democracy: as archival shrines they serve to embody the ideal of free and open inquiry, while celebrating the concentration of power in the ‘Imperial Presidency.’ Along the way, readers will find unforgettable details, such as LBJ walking outside to round up more visitors to his library or the Truman Library designers shrinking their Oval Office replica because of mistakes in measurement. This is an important book for anyone interested in public history, the evolution of the Presidency, or commemoration in the twentieth century.”
—Kirk Savage, author of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America
“Part popular culture study, part anthropological investigation, and part architectural analysis, this study adds a new dimension to our understanding of America’s fascination with the presidency.”
—Peter C. Rollins, editor of Hollywood’s White House and The West Wing
“I enthusiastically recommend this imaginative, thoroughly researched, well-written, and fascinating study. It is a welcome addition to the diverse and ever-expanding field investigating the cultural functions of the national commemorative landscape.”
—Edward T. Linenthal, author of Preserving Memory
“An insightful and much-needed book.”
—Larry Hackman, former director of the Truman LibrarySee fewer reviews...
Hufbauer sees these various commemorative sites as playing a key role in the construction of our collective political and cultural self-images and as another sign of our preoccupation with celebrity culture. Ultimately, he contends, these presidential temples reflect not only our civil religion but also the extraordinary expansion of executive authority—and presidential self-commemoration—since FDR.
While presidential libraries and memorials have also become media-driven attractions that often contribute significantly to the economies of their home cities, Hufbauer shows that their primary function remains the transformation of presidential history into presidential myth for the general public.