WHAT IS IT? The boyhood home, gravesite, Presidential Library and Museum of the 32nd president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
BEAUTY (5/10) The Museum and Library are two nearly identical pillared Kansas limestone buildings. They stand nearby the Eisenhower family’s typical 19th-century white country home. The 22-acre Site has a relaxed feel, resembling more a small-town Kansas Park than a place of presidential officialdom.
Especially striking is Dwight, Mamie and their first-born son’s final resting place named the “Place of Meditation”. The small chapel-like building lives up to its moniker. The sun shines through multi-colored crystals of stained glass, water drips from an indoor fountain and pews allow for silent meditation or prayer. Their tombs lay in front of a short marble wall, upon which read three of Ike’s quotes, which center around the values of faith, humility and peace.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10) It was particularly interesting to visit Eisenhower’s Presidential Museum just days after we had seen Harry Truman’s Presidential Museum. Early on, Ike spent much of his time trying to make a good hand from the cards that Harry had dealt him. He quickly got the U.S. out of Korea, he stabilized the escalating tensions of the Cold War and he stopped the McCarthy redbaiting madness. His biggest presidential regret was his lack of success regarding nuclear disarmament even though he halted during his tenure their widespread proliferation.
By the end of his tenure, he had turned around the struggling economy, vastly improved our infrastructure through mass Interstate building and also found a way to allocate $10 billion to refurbish the National Park System through the Mission ’66 program. In all, Ike led us through eight years of peace and prosperity that are book ended by seemingly intractable crises.
We could not help but be impressed by Ike, his love of peace and his dedication to the welfare of the country. The Site reinforced his small-town upbringing, his grounded personality and his genial nature. We were under his spell.
At the same time, Eisenhower spent only his childhood here in Abilene but because of his military background, it was his the only permanent home he would know until the White House. The Museum has little of the memorabilia that bolsters the Hoover, FDR and Truman museums, but you can see the table that the D-Day Invasion was planned upon. The Museum also does not delve into the thoughts of Eisenhower’s critics. The Presidential Site, done by Reader’s Digest, teaches and enchants but lacks significant historical depth. Something was missing. If Ike was so great, then why did they country embrace JFK with such fervor and such hope.
CROWDS (6/10) The crowds were not large. If you were near Abilene, you were probably at the 5:00 p.m. Wild Bill Hickok Days Parade. We still found it difficult to use the interactive displays in the newly renovated Presidential Gallery. Too many kids hogging the cool games, like the $64,000 Question (Ike as your topic of choice), Build an Interstate (like Ike) and See Who’s at and What’s Served at the State Dinner, that Michael wanted to play.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) The Eisenhower Center is located along Kansas Route 15 just two miles south of Interstate 70, Exit 275. Abilene is a small town with a rich cowboy history and a nice downtown. There are plenty of signs leading to the Site. You won’t get lost even if you are diverted from the main drag because of the Parade. Like we were!
The Site has plenty of parking, paved trails lead to and from each building, and all exhibits are located on the first floor. No stair climbing necessary.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) Is there as much a dearth of Eisenhower scholarship as the Store’s selection would indicate? Not nearly enough World War II books either. The Presidential Museum bookstores we have visited thus far have been treasure troves. The Eisenhower Center’s falls far short.
COSTS (3/5) Admission to the Presidential Museum is $5. All other buildings, including the Eisenhower Family Home, are free of charge.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) There are two Guides located in the Family Home eager to explain the room’s contents, answer any questions and even tell a few anecdotes about Ike’s childhood. The Presidential Museum is entirely self-guided; there is nobody to clear up any confusions.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) Gab’s favorite exhibit was a traveling display of Ike’s paintings. We had no idea that he was an amateur artist. The works are amateurish but very endearing. Ike started his hobby on advice from Winston Churchill that painting would calm his nerves. He never pretends to be skilled or inspired as he paints mostly copies of photographs. He is shocked but reluctantly benevolent when people want copies. He even uses facsimiles of his works as his White House Christmas Cards. The exhibit, wedged in between rooms explaining his early life in the military and his World War II exploits, demonstrates a genuine, likable human being.
The Presidential Gallery presented by Reader’s Digest is head and shoulders above the other permanent displays, which is only natural because it is new. The early life and World War II displays are reminiscent of Ike’s Mission ‘66-era National Parks museums. Sadly enough, exhibits at Badlands NP, Scottsbluff NM, and Capulin Volcano NM among many others have yet to be updated since their inception as part of Mission '66.
The Presidential Gallery’s interactive displays are fun but hard to get to even when there is a sparse crowd. We would have liked to have seen more primary documents, more criticism and more thorough explanations. It was also a little bit disturbing to see children fascinated by the hundreds of stock World War II weaponry on display while they rushed past the Ike quotes and exhibits that plead for the necessity of disarmament and peace.
FUN (6/10) We had fun learning and were profoundly moved in the Place of Meditation. We like Ike.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) If you are making the long trek along Interstate 70 to Denver, a combo stop of the Truman Site in Independence, Mo. and the Ike Museum in Abilene, Kansas is a superb 20th-century historic lesson that casts illuminating perspectives on today’s life. FYI: If you like history and your spouse or kids could care less, there is a free Greyhound Hall of Fame across the street with extensive puppy paintings and statues.
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