Missouri's Truman Presidential Library And Museum Is Being Reimagined. Here's A Preview
When director Kurt Graham arrived at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in July 2015, he immediately dove into a new project.
"And as we got into it with the staff and the board and the other stakeholders in the community and people in the museum industry," Graham says, "we realized that we weren't just remodeling or refreshing the galleries. We were re-imagining the Truman Library from top to bottom."
The Truman Library & Museum, closed since July 2019, is poised to reopen this year, with a 3,000-square-foot addition and new ways to make the story of Truman and his presidency relevant to what's happening today.
Over the last few decades, the museum experience has changed a lot, in part due to technological advances and visitor feedback.
"When I was growing up, going to a museum was almost a liturgical experience," says Patrick Gallagher, president of the museum planning and design firm, Gallagher & Associates. "Don't talk, don't touch, and stay in single file lines."
These days, he says, visitors are encouraged to read, watch, listen, or interact.
Gallagher & Associates has designed projects like the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
It also has been adding presidential libraries to its portfolio.
"FDR, Reagan, Johnson, Ford, and now Truman," Gallagher says. "I guess I've become a little bit of a presidential library junkie."
Presidential libraries used to focus on the years of an administration, he says. But now they take a broader view.
"Going deeper into who's the person — what molded that person, what's their contemporary relevance? How are they remaining relevant today?," Gallagher says, "so that we can find a reason for visitors to say 'yes, there is a legacy here that's really important to my life.'"
Visitors will be greeted by a new sense of arrival and flow. The entrance is now on the east side of the building through a 3,000-square-foot addition. And Truman’s life story is all on one level.
"This museum is set up in a chronological flow," Gallagher says, "so there's a very directional flow to how visitors go through."
Truman was thrust into the presidency in April 1945 with the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"I think people will see that, yes, he was just an ordinary man, but he got launched on an extraordinary journey and had to make decisions that few people in human history have ever had to confront," says director Kurt Graham. "And I think that is what people will appreciate about him is that notion of character, that notion of integrity."
As with other presidents, Gallagher says, decisions defined Truman’s presidency — especially ones he was confronted with in the first four months.
"Then you turn the corner and you're at this first four months," Gallagher describes, as he walks into a hallway. "So the idea of creating compression for the visitor. So all of these incredible moments are weighing on the shoulders of Truman."
Moments like the end of the war with Germany, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, and the end of the war in the Pacific.
Gallagher described creating a sense of motion for visitors "where, with each turn, you had a dramatic vista to either an artifact or graphic or something that basically leads you through."
Artifacts include an upright piano that belonged to Harry Truman’s aunt and uncle (Truman played throughout his life). And a light tower with the words "Dear Bess" and reproductions of letters in a cursive script that Truman wrote to his wife, Bess.
"His relationship with his wife, cementing that relationship from the beginning was very important to us," Gallagher says. "So the fact that he, they saved these letters and they're still here is a great moment in finding that personal connection again."
The redesigned library includes immersive theaters. One features Truman’s service in World War I. Another focuses on the Red Scare; it's a red-lit space about the fear and suspicion around spying during the Cold War.
"There is a theater to all this," says Gallagher, "and making each space have its own character and dimension is important."
He reads some of the questions illuminated on the walls: "What are you hiding? Who can you trust? You're underpinning that sense of paranoia and that encourages people to sit down and really dig in on the interaction."
Artifacts were pulled out of storage, classified documents were de-classified, and video and audio were uncovered to add new layers to Truman’s story.
As Gallagher puts it — Truman’s "thumbprint on history" still resonates today, from civil rights to foreign aid to health care and Social Security.
"So the narrative continues and that's part of what a good presidential library does is shows that the legacy is as significant as the years they served," he said. "And that's what people are going to see here."
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