Truman Library and Museum to Reopen in 2021 with Expanded Permanent Exhibit

Architect’s rendering of the east entrance of the renovated Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum showing the floor-to ceiling glass façade emblazoned with the presidential seal. (The Clark Enersen Partners)

New Topics Include Recognition of the State of Israel, the Korean War and Civil Rights

The footprint of the building remains the same, with the exception of a new public entrance on the east side with a floor-to-ceiling glass façade sporting a presidential seal designed by the architectural firm of Clark Enersen Partners. All other major changes involved a gutting of the museum’s interior and the creation of the entire permanent 12,400-square-foot exhibit (once split between the first and lower levels) on the first level.

The museum had planned to open to the public in November but the National Archives closed the facility and postponed public programs because of the rise in COVID-19 cases. The timing of the re-opening in 2021 remains uncertain.

Visitors will enter the renovated museum from the new entrance and lobby and pass through the Legacy Gallery featuring a statue of President Truman, the courtyard with Harry’s and Bess’ graves, the eternal flame and a distant view of Harry’s office, left as it was when he died in 1972.

As Graham explained, among the most important decisions made in the new permanent exhibit was to focus on topics that were underrepresented in the previous exhibit. Those topics include recognition of the State of Israel, the Korean War and Civil Rights. The new displays include videos incorporating actual footage narrated by “PBS News Hour” anchor Judy Woodruff, ABC News journalist Juju Chang and Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, respectively.

Incorporating the latest scholarship and new artifacts and archival material, the exhibit presents history in as unvarnished a manner as possible. By way of just one example, the exhibit shows how Truman was the first U.S. President to speak at a NAACP convention in 1947, issued an executive order in 1948 that led to the desegregation of the armed forces, and gave a speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention in support of the party’s Civil Rights platform that led to a walkout by southern delegates to form the Dixiecrat Party. All this came from the man whose grandparents owned slaves and who, in 1911, wrote to future wife Bess: “I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white man in Europe and America.”

The first stop in the exhibit, the “Entry Experience Theater,” sets the stage with a film focusing on April 12, 1945, the day Franklin Roosevelt died, and the start of what is often referred to as “the accidental presidency.” That leads into the First Four Months Gallery, which presents the daunting challenges Truman faced.

Visitors will encounter the sobering challenge of Truman’s most controversial decision: to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the contrasting artifacts of the safety plug from the second atomic bomb and an origami paper crane folded by Sadako Sasaki, who at age two, lived in Hiroshima and survived the immediate impact of the bombing, only to die 10 years later of leukemia from exposure to the bomb’s radiation.

The Postwar World Gallery features “The Hard Problems of Peace,” a 14-foot-diameter interactive globe, whose video projections help visitors locate the many hotspots during the Cold War, several of which continue to be problematic today.

Nearby, visitors will be able to spend time in the Loyalty Oath Interactive and engage as interrogators and interrogated in virtual role-playing with the Congress’s Loyalty Review Board immersed in the quest to “root out communists” during the Red Scare.

On a much lighter note in the same exhibit, visitors will enjoy that part of the commentary on the Berlin Airlift of 1948 that features the “Uncle Wiggly Wings Operation,” or “Little Vittles Operation,” as the event was variously known, during which “candy bombers” dropped treats for the children of West Berlin as they landed with desperately needed supplies of food, fuel and medicine.

Completion of the Truman library redesign may be a high point of its current strategic plan, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Truman’s becoming president. But it also serves to provide the base upon which will be built the next eight years of programing on the momentous events of the Truman presidency from 1945 to 1953.

In closing, it is important to recall Kurt Graham’s words that the new exhibit — while clearly a “reimagining” — remains consistent with Truman’s insistence on his library being at its heart an educational institution, dedicated to our understanding of American government and democracy.

Much has changed since 1957, or even since the project began. In these trying times, as we search for much needed leadership, this exhibit will provide us with the opportunity to contemplate the nature of leadership and the critical importance of one model leader — that “farmer from Missouri”— “who may not have been perfect, but who was a man of integrity and principle, who understood how to lead.”

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is located at 500 W. US Highway 24 in Independence, Missouri. For more information, 816.268.8200 or www.trumanlibrary.org.

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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