John F. Kennedy Library & Museum
Visited: July 31, 2006
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Presidential Library Visted: 11 of 12
WHAT IS IT?
The Presidential Library and Museum of our 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
I.M. Pei's modernist design recalls a historical path that never occurred. His angular white towering structure feels like the space-age, clean, civilized future we imagined would come but never did. The building is anachronistic and progressive at the same time. Like Kennedy, it leaves you with a feeling of “what went wrong”, where did the chaos and uncertainty come from. Weren't we in complete control of our perfect destiny?
The Museum's interior layout casually takes you through the past with style, an ordered past and without confusion. You always know where to go and those places fill you with reassurance. The black-walled corridor adorned only with the date, November 22, 1963 empties into another, larger corridor that shows the achievements of JFK's initiatives, other Kennedy members, and JFK's political heirs.
The final room is a 155-foot tall glass-enclosed pavilion which looks out onto the Harbor and the Boston skyline. Above a gargantuan American flag hangs. The tower speaks of lofty dreams which are belied by the oppressive, criss-crossed girders which even, 155 feet above the ground, limit any further soaring.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
The Museum does a terrific job of explaining and evoking Camelot, the romance of a young, charming and handsome president and in the promise that hope brought a modern nation.
The memory of JFK and his mythic life still hold powerful sway in New England. The 43 years that have passed since his assassination are reduced to none once you step into his Library. The crowds' lingering love for Kennedy makes the Museum a very emotional, somber and hero-affirming place.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
The JFK Library and Museum is located just off Interstate 93 on the campus of UMass-Boston, about five miles south of downtown Boston. Take either Exit 15 (from the North) or Exit 14 (from the South) onto Morrissey Boulevard. Follow the signs, they are abundant, to the Museum. Parking is free.
From the T (the Boston subway), take the red line to the aptly titled JFK/UMass station. A frequent shuttle ferries museum mavens from the stop to the Library.
A first glance at the bookstore reveals classy souvenirs and a slew of books. Further perusals confirm the ritzy knickknack part: Robert Berks casted JFK busts, stylish Jackie O accessories, sailboat miniatures and lots of scrimshaw. We bought a wonderful large Irish-made teapot for Michael's parents. It is very hard to find nice large teapots.
A second glance proved the book part lacking. 90% of the books are written by a Kennedy family member (or ghostwritten by Ted Sorensen). It is easy to imagine that their books take up two shelves given the Kennedy family's prodigious writing output. What does this have to do with the historical research done at the Library and analysis of JFK's Presidency? Nothing at all. We have been largely disappointed at the lack of critical books stocked at most modern-day Presidential Libraries: Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Kennedy. Why not stock everything written about the men?
Even more disappointing was the lack of Ernest Hemingway books. Yes, Hemingway. The Kennedy Library manages the entire collection of Hemingway's manuscripts, letters and correspondences. Why no Hemingway rarities for sale and why no Hemingway exhibits in the Museum?
Entry is $10 per person, making it the second most expensive Presidential Library. The Reagan Library in Simi Valley has undergone a dramatic price hike to $12 per from our $7 visit in May of 2005. Most Presidential Libraries run about $7 per person and also hold significant AAA discount potential.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
No one. This tour is fully self-guided.
The early Kennedy imagery (the Nixon debate and the Inauguration speech) is so ubiquitous, so canonized and so familiar that witnessing them play out on Hi-Def televisions in Disney-esque set-pieces seems natural and immediately acceptable. We were not born until 1974 but it still feels like we were there when these events happened.
Once JFK is elected, the Museum's chronological layout switches from a jumbled walkway surrounding exhibits to a long corridor with topical antechambers. It is with the less familiar material that JFK's aura and lasting sway over the American people becomes clearer. One exhibit space recreates the White House briefing room where a full JFK press conference is replayed on a small 60's cabinet monitor. The literary brilliance of his staff reports and personal correspondences line the walls.
Kennedy's press conference performance is so natural, so charming, so intelligent, so witty, so suave and so confident. He is a polished level-headed representation of our grown-up USA, he is class, he is the promise of a modern, perfect world.
Promise, however, is what the Museum must lean on. Kennedy's accomplishments are beginnings, thoughts, inspirations and legacies. His actions sometimes contradict the mythology and the Museum largely ignores the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the beginnings of Vietnam, the personal peccadilloes and the lack of Civil Rights legislation. The Museum is about the Kennedy dream and romance rather than the Kennedy reality; it is debatable which holds more meaning.
We enjoyed being transported back in time through I.M. Pei's alternate universe spaceship. Back to a time of heroes and legends and of hope and dreams. Back to a time when greatness was the goal, when the future was a part of the plan and when fear was forgotten and dreams were met without cynicism. It felt good to be a part of that world. Knowing that historically it quickly ended and perhaps never even existed was heartbreaking.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Jack Kennedy is as Boston as baked beans, Jerry Remy and Faneuil Hall. If you visit Boston, you should travel to the JFK Presidential Library. It is a perfect commemoration of his time as president, especially in remembering the mythology and charm that wooed hundreds of millions of people the world over. Camelot still lives at UMass-Boston.