CHICAGO — The tower of the Obama Presidential Center slot online is getting a lot of attention as it rises in Jackson Park on the South Side. Meanwhile, Louise Bernard is trying to build the centerpiece museum’s interior: balancing former President Barack Obama’s philosophy and his namesake foundation’s mission with historical accuracy in a time of corrosive partisanship.
While plans for the center’s outer shell have been known (and litigated over) for years, its insides — and the narrative Obama’s team plans to present over four floors of distinct exhibits — have largely been unknown.
The woman leading that narrative charge is Bernard, a native of the United Kingdom who was named museum director in the spring of 2017.
During an exclusive interview, Bernard said she has grappled with how to approach Obama’s history and the controversies and challenges from his two terms in office, and present them at an institution critics worry will turn into yet another of the presidential “temples of spin” instead of an unbiased reflection of the time.
Among those Obama-era controversies: the rise of drone warfare, occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, failure to close Guantánamo Bay, and the more fragile aspects of the landmark Affordable Care Act and nuclear agreement with Iran.
Bernard said while the center has an emphasis on the “values-based” leadership of the president and Michelle Obama, her team “leaned hard” into using primary source documents that help show the Obamas’ thinking at the time they made decisions in the White House. And she noted the historical interpretation is almost certain to shift and evolve with time.
Of drones, for instance, Bernard said the museum team sought to place them “in the context of the administration’s goals for national security … certainly there was critique from both the left and the right. The president wanted for us, in terms of exhibit-making, to engage around the complexities of decision-making, the differing perspectives and the idea that work always remains beyond one given president or the work of administration.”
“There are things that he simply couldn’t accomplish during his time in office, and he’s very open in acknowledging that and tasking people to continue the work,” she said.
“Obviously, we’re telling the story of a particular president and no museum is ever neutral in its storytelling. There’s a particular point of view,” Bernard said.
But the fact-checking and sourcing have been rigorous, she said. “Every single word is weighed, every date is checked, every name, every face in an image is checked for accuracy. And at the end of the day, the history is still playing itself out. It’s still very recent history.”
Bernard is no stranger to big, complex public exhibits that invite scrutiny.
Plucked from her spot as director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library, Bernard is an “Americanist” with a Ph.D. in African American studies and American studies from Yale and a masters in English from Indiana University.
She was previously on the design team for the national Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and advised on the International Museum of African American History in Charleston, South Carolina.
She and the president — a Harvard grad praised and derided as an intellectual — speak a similar language, Bernard said.
“I come out of a cultural, literary kind of background, academically, and so engaging with a president who is himself a writer, in the best tradition of American letters, is something that sits very well with me,” she said. She also understands the “global dynamics of his thinking and how it’s brought to bear on this particular project, even though it’s rooted in Chicago and in this idea of the Black metropolis.”
Bernard said the foundation has worked with “a series of subject matter experts,” including presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin (author of the Abraham Lincoln biography “Team of Rivals”) and Douglas Brinkley, also a history professor at Rice University. They are part of a “Storytelling Council” that has advised the museum’s narrative.
President Obama “has been engaged with reading the script, so to speak, the narrative that we tell in the museum, providing feedback but also deferring to other subject matter experts in the field and certainly to the historians who he respects and admires,” Bernard says.
Obama has not vetoed any content, foundation spokesperson Courtney Williams said.
While Bernard describes their consultants as a “Team of Rivals” of sorts, there are friendly faces among the ranks: The fact-checking firm the museum is using, Silver Street Strategies, was founded by former leaders in the Obama White House’s research department.
Another historian on the team, Kenneth Mack, was an Obama classmate at Harvard Law who the president appointed to the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, which documents the history of the Supreme Court.
NYU history professor Nikhil Singh was also tapped to advise on museum content in 2021. He considers himself one of the more critical voices from Obama’s time: For one, he thinks the former president failed to be as transformative on the foreign policy stage as his supporters hoped and was an “ambivalent figure, in a way” when it came to the issues of policing and mass incarceration that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. He hopes the museum grapples with that.
Singh was not asked to consult on any of the floors that involve Obama’s presidency directly, but did weigh in on the sections that deal with American history pre-Obama, including the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and student movements of the 1960s, “what Obama considers a very formative period for him,” Singh said.
Singh pressed for an emphasis on the importance of the labor movement at the time, which he said foundation officials were receptive to.
“Clearly they weren’t afraid to consult broadly, I appreciate that ‘Team of Rivals’ would be Obama’s style,” Singh told the Tribune. “I think he does believe in history, more than a lot of other American presidents. Not just the kind of canned American history as myth, American exceptionalism, city on a hill … but a history from below, of ordinary people making history.”
“I think that’s what they’re trying to do with the museum, that he himself is a product of history, or a set of histories. That’s interesting, potentially, and instructive … how it exists within a historical context rather than on high,” Singh said. “The idea of a history museum is one they took seriously and as a historian, I appreciate that.”
Obama already eschewed the tradition of privately-funded but publicly-maintained presidential libraries, opting in 2017 not to build a library for the National Archives and Records Administration to house the presidency’s paper records and physical artifacts. Instead, his private foundation is paying NARA to digitize the paper records from his presidency and simultaneously amassing its own collection of artifacts.
The break from NARA spurred worries from some historians and a former presidential museum director about the ease of access to information and potential partisanship in storytelling. Others argued it was better that complexes with a reputation for presidential propaganda were no longer propped up by federal taxpayers.
NARA will lend documents and artifacts from Obama’s time in the White House for the museum’s exhibits, according to a foundation spokesperson. That includes paper documents for display as well as gifts from heads of state, objects from state dinners and other White House events, and Mrs. Obama’s garments.
Bernard said interested historians will be able to access information online, including at the small Chicago Public Library branch that will be part of the OPC’s campus.
The lantern-shaped building that will house the museum, meant to evoke four hands coming together, will be wrapped in a screen of text from Obama’s speech marking the 50th anniversary of the police attacks on civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama, known as “Bloody Sunday.”
It’s the first of several references on the campus and museum to those “on whose shoulders we stand,” Bernard said. “President Obama’s story was only made possible because of the people who went before him,” she said, a reflection about “the power of everyday people willing to put their lives on the line for American democracy.”
The museum itself will be housed in the middle of the building. Visitors will start on the ground floor and ascend through four floors of exhibits before reaching a “sky room” atop the structure, looking through the screen toward the South Side or north east to the lake and the Museum of Science and Industry.
In between will be a private presidential suite, where the President and Mrs. Obama can host VIPs, donors, world leaders and foundation program participants. Unlike the Clinton library, the building will not have a living space or apartment for the former first family.
The first floor exhibit will be “Toward a More Perfect Union,” Bernard said, referring to the “building blocks of American democracy that would lead to the election of the nation’s first Black president … the founding contradictions, abolition and reconstruction, the Progressive Era, women’s suffrage, the New Deal, Great Society, and the modern civil rights movement.”
Moving upward, next will be “Working for the Common Good,” recapping the Obama administration across two terms, tackling domestic and foreign policy, “the push and pull of progress” and “key initiatives that the administration was working through,” Bernard said.
It will touch on the fallout from the Great Recession, the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s immigration and education policies, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama’s “vision for foreign policy as it connects to a broader understanding of security and peace,” Bernard said.
The third level will be the “palate cleanser” known as “The People’s House.” It will have the replica of Obama’s Oval Office (which visitors will be able to walk through and touch) as well as other replica White House rooms shrunk down and in the style of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The final level, “We the People,” picks up “some of the key storytelling around the administration’s work for the common good,” including tribal, disability and LGBTQ rights; gender equity; criminal justice and policing reform; science, innovation and climate change.
The floor also revisits Obama’s farewell address in Chicago, where he spoke about the importance of civic engagement and “passing the baton back to the people to continue the work.”
The idea is “embedded throughout the space,” Bernard said.
“For people who are coming to the center and are coming to the museum, and they want to see the replica of the Oval Office, and they want to see Mrs. Obama’s dresses, and they want to learn more about the Affordable Care Act, or whatever it may be, we want them to think about the change that they can make, however small. It really is those kind of small radical acts that add up to something bigger.”
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