Values not descriptive tales must drive our proposed Presidential Library
Having spent the last few days visiting North American museums, the proposal to establish a Kenyan Presidential Library, Museum and Exhibition Centre caught my attention. The pressure to frame past President’s legacies for future generations is now on. It remains to be seen whether nostalgia or igniting the national imagination will be its focus.
The North American experience is very relevant for the plans to establish a memorial library “initially” for former Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki. North America has established thirteen Presidential libraries over the last fifty years. Although they are called libraries, they are really archives and museums that bring together documents and artifacts for lovers and students of American history.
The buildings and their content belong to the American people. Together, they house over 400 million pages, ten million photographs and 100,000 audio and video-tape recordings. The amount of motion picture film they contain could line the road between Mombasa and Lokichogio five times. Millions of people pass through their doors annually. The most popular of the museums are those of Reagan and Clinton. Hoover and Nixon’s are the least popular.
Most North American museums remain preoccupied with the material culture of executive power, its’ protocols, replicas and architecture. Too much attention and cost goes into recreating a self-absorbed nostalgia with the pen he used, the chair he sat on and his favorite car. Grasping to be politically correct, too little attention is paid to the dilemmas and demons they faced or the frailty of their characters. At their worst, the libraries are exercises in myth-making and legacy narrative control.
At their worst, Presidential libraries are exercises in myth-making and legacy narrative control.
Recent plans for the fourteenth library for Obama have generated interesting discussions on the purpose and organization of a Presidential library. Obama’s proposed library in Chicago breaks with the past in two ways. The museum will be owned and operated by the Obama Foundation and the President’s papers will be the property of the National Archives not the Foundation.
Traditionally, American libraries have been built with public financing and major private donations. These private donations have often been made to sitting Presidents and not transparently declared. Public disclosure of who and how much is being contributed matters for the integrity of our own museum.
Our presidential museum must avoid other risks. The purpose of a Presidential library is to honestly reveal the distinctiveness of the period and the decisions and dilemmas of its leadership. The three first Presidents and the current are very different men. Collapsing them into a single space seems to me to be a recipe for blurring national history.
Leadership, personal character and legacy matters in a Presidential library. There is a reason why the museums of bold and charismatic past Presidents like Reagan and Clinton attract and the controversial Nixon and Hoover’s do not. Those presidents who left office with high public approval ratings tend to have more visitors than those who left publicly scorned.
Remaining honest in the face of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report or Joe Khamisi’s “Looters and Grabbers: 54 years of corruption and plunder by the elite (1963-2017)” is the Presidential team’s first challenge. It will be interesting to see how they will capture the actions taken or not to forge a unified, ethical society that is free from want and fear.
Remaining honest to our history of violence, exclusion and corruption is the first challenge. The inner working of the US state is vividly captured in a remarkable conversation between President Lyndon B. Johnson and FBI Director John E. Hoover on the murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964. Imagine if our Presidential library captured deliberations on how to manage leadership transitions, corruption scandals, high level assassinations, university student protests and economic policy trade-offs. What were their red bike moments? Their concerns and fears? What did they feel were their successes and achievements?
To frame a powerful story-line, planners of our first Presidency Museum should look to National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Muhammad Ali Center in Washington DC and Louisville, Kentucky. Both offer more inspiring models of recreating history. They weave both personal stories and public narrative with both complexity and clarity. Values of integrity, courage, humility and extra-ordinary public service ooze from those walls. Visitors are left with not just past stories but how past choices and sacrifices relate to the present. Above all, the two museums challenge us to live by the principles of confidence, bold leadership, dedication, giving, care for others and spirituality.
It is important that values rather than descriptive tales drive the heart of our presidential museum. It is not obviously clear which these could be. One approach could be to ask citizens to describe the experience they want when they visit the future museum. Having listened to what Kenyans are curious about and value as important, script a narrative that inspires us in Ali’s words “to be great and do great things”.
Eid Mubarak all.
First published Saturday Standard, June 16, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group