Harry S. Truman Library and Museum Embarks on a Major Renovation and Expansion

Attractions Will Include Viewer Interactive Exhibits, Immersive Sound and Light Theaters and State-of-the-Art Technology

In 2020, the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Truman’s ascent to the presidency of the United States with the completion of the institution’s largest renovation and expansion since it opened more than 60 years ago. Having closed this past July, the museum is expected to reopen in a year.

The library, museum and Truman Library Institute, under the leadership of its new library director, Kurt Graham, began planning for the project four years ago. The 2016 strategic plan, in part, called for updating the museum’s exhibition, developing a second generation of education programs and creating a comprehensive vision and plan for the 75th anniversary of Truman’s presidency.

Of the $25 million dedicated to the project, $22 million is earmarked for renovations and a new Truman exhibit. The remaining $3 million will be divided equally between enhanced education programs, expanded public programs and endowment support.

“The expansion and renovation of the Truman Library and Museum gives us the opportunity to showcase, reflect on and better understand the incredible life and momentous decisions our 33rd president made,” said Clyde Wendel, Truman Library Institute board chair.

Likely to attract attention will be a new presentation on Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The plans call for viewers to encounter the bomb’s safety plug upon entering the exhibit and, upon leaving, a paper crane folded by Sadako Sasaki, a young girl living in Hiroshima, who died from leukemia due to exposure to the bomb’s radiation. The crane was given to the Library and the Truman family by the Sasaki family.

The Presidential Library System got its start in 1938, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced plans to donate his presidential papers to the federal government and raise private funds for the construction of a library and museum on his Hyde Park, New York, estate. At his urging, Congress passed a joint resolution accepting the new facility as part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which was dedicated in 1941.

In 1950, President Truman decided that he too would build a library to house his presidential papers, which he envisioned as “a classroom for democracy.” Four years later he announced, “The Library will belong to the people of the United States. My papers will be the property of the people . . . And this is as it should be.” In 1955, at Truman’s urging, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing the Presidential Library System, which today includes 13 — soon to be 14 — presidential libraries honoring every president since Herbert Hoover.

In 1957, the Truman Presidential Library and Museum became the first such institution constructed under the Presidential Libraries Act, at a cost of $1.75 million. Largely at Truman’s choosing, the lead architect on the project was Edward F. Neild, of Shreveport, Louisiana, whom Truman knew from his work on other projects in the Kansas City area, as well as on the White House renovation during his presidency. Truman also selected the Independence site for his library and museum, on land donated by the city.

The last major renovation was dedicated in 2001, at a cost of $22.5 million. It featured a new permanent exhibit on the life and times of Harry S. Truman with what was then state-of-the-art audio and video and a new education wing designed to resemble the West Wing of the White House, accommodating the White House Decision Center.

Designing the Exhibits

In the current renovation, the exhibit galleries have been designed with the help of Gallagher & Associates, a museum planning and design firm whose credits include exhibits at the Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan Presidential Libraries and Museums. They are working with the architectural firm Clark Enersen Partners and JE Dunn Construction, all following NARA construction design guidelines.

The current permanent exhibit is divided between the ground level and the first floor, and it is outdated both in content and design. To correct the situation, the entire new, 12,400-square-foot permanent Truman exhibit will be located on the first floor. Incorporating the latest research and adding new archival materials and artifacts, the exhibit will tell Truman’s story anew.

Plans for the Truman exhibit include immersive sound and light theaters and a 14-foot-diameter interactive globe — “The Hard Problems of Peace” — which will help visitors locate the places that posed “problems of peace” during the Cold War that followed World War II. It will also have a Loyalty Review Board role-playing game, where visitors can uncover alleged instances of disloyalty to the government during the Red Scare.

Redesigning the permanent exhibit does not come without its challenges. In an interview, Bruce Lightbody, lead designer for Gallagher & Associates, referred to the “million-dollar challenge,” or how to design an exhibit that will appeal to the variety of visitors — in age, interests, levels of knowledge and perspectives — that will pass through it. He also discussed plans to create a state-of-the-art exhibit — the newest of all 13 presidential libraries — in the confines of the second oldest building in the system.

The lower level will be renovated to double the square footage of its two exhibit galleries. They too will include state-of-the-art technology, which will enhance the museum’s ability to host larger, more complex, temporary exhibits. The lower level will also house the museum’s White House Decision Center.

Drama and Convenience

Plans also call for relocating the main entrance to the east side of the building and construction of a new, dramatic, 2,100-square-foot entrance with a floor-to-ceiling glass façade and a frosted presidential seal designed by Clark Enersen. According to lead architect Hadley Stolte, visitors will be greeted by a statue of the president and a dramatic view of the museum’s courtyard and the Trumans’ graves.

The new entrance will provide for better access from the parking lot and a more direct path into the permanent exhibit in one direction and event space and meeting rooms in the other. The first stop in the new exhibit will be what is being called the “Entry Experience Theater.” There, visitors will view a film focusing on April 12, 1945, the day Franklin Roosevelt died and the start of what some consider Truman’s “accidental presidency.” From there, visitors will step back in time to learn what prepared Truman for the presidency and to deal with the many crises he faced, from his childhood in Missouri through his presidential years.

Along the way, visitors will encounter three “feedback stations,” which will address situations President Truman faced that are still relevant in the 21st century. Keyboards and video screens will enable visitors to make comments, leaving a record for subsequent viewers.

The Thomas Hart Benton mural will remain, but instead of greeting people upon their entrance, it will be among the last things they see in a room dedicated to “Truman’s Independence.” Also untouched will be Truman’s working office, left as it was when he died, and the replica Oval Office and courtyard.

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir has announced that the city is planning projects of its own to welcome what they hope will be an increased number of visitors. One project includes a pedestrian walkway between Truman’s house and the museum — the same walkway Truman took to work every day in retirement.

As Library Director Kurt Graham has made clear, with all that is planned for the new design, the Library and Museum will remain true to Truman’s vision for his library: “At its heart, the Truman Library is an educational institution. And we are so thrilled to be able to offer a 21st-century experience and interpretation of one of the great proponents of American democracy.”

The museum will remain closed until the summer or early fall of 2020, but the library archives and research room will remain open, and as a buildup to the 75th anniversary, library officials are planning several related events throughout the area.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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