What’s a Presidential Library to Do?

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — When Republicans gathered at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum here for the presidential debate last week, the backdrop was an overhauled exhibition on the Reagan presidency, done under the watchful eye of Nancy Reagan. It is intended, in part, to be a more complete depiction of the Reagan presidency, replacing one that many had seen as a bit too worshipful and airbrushed.

But another exhibition that just opened at yet another presidential museum not far away — the Watergate installation at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda — has offered a stark challenge to the Reagan tribute here, exposing both the different ways that these two museums have chosen to remember their subjects and the different positions that the two former presidents hold in the nation’s and the Republican Party’s memory.

“The Reagan library is the way presidential libraries have been in the past,” said Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine. “The Nixon library represents the new kind of museum that presents more of an historic view, warts and all.”

The Watergate exhibition is so detailed, searing and unapologetic — “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” asks a panel that greets visitors — that it was shunned by Nixon loyalists. They did not attend the opening ceremony this year and provided it no financial support, and last week, one museum docent resigned his post in protest.

By contrast, the revamped Reagan library — “He fought for freedom; he set out to change the nation,” attendees are informed in the introductory film — was financed and developed by the Reagan Foundation. Mrs. Reagan approved much of the content, library officials said. Attendees at the invitation-only debate of the presidential candidates were encouraged to view the display, which opened to the public in February....

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