Renovated Truman Presidential Library opens this week in Independence after being closed for two years
Alex Burden says he and Kurt Graham, executive director Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum, have visited presidential museums across the country over the past few years.
They say the fully renovated library in Independence, which has been closed for nearly two years and will reopen Friday, will set a hard-to-match standard.
“This sets the bar for a new generation of presidential museums,” said Burden, director of the Truman Library Institute, the library’s non-profit fundraising arm.
Said Graham, “There’s nothing like this in the presidential library system.”
Tickets went on sale Monday morning and are available online only at TrumanLibrary.gov. Tickets will be limited for the time being to help maintain social distancing amid the pandemic.
For now, the library off U.S. 24 in Independence will be open five days a week: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets are $12 for general admission, $10 for seniors 62 and older and veterans/military, $8 for college students (with ID) and $5 for children ages 13 to 18. Children 12 and younger are free.
A grand reopening ceremony has not yet been scheduled.
With the nearly $29 million renovation – the biggest in the library's 63-year history – the library has a new main entrance on the east side, and the permanent exhibits have been expanded and woven together all on the main floor. Directors aimed to tell Truman’s story – both his life and times and his presidency – in a more natural flow, rather than on two separate floors as before the library closed two summers ago.
There are more audio and visual elements, and exhibit areas generally are more interactive for visitors regardless of age.
“It’s a theatrical experience,” said Alex Burden, director of the Truman Library Institute, the library’s non-profit fundraising arm. “An immersive experience.”
“This sets the bar for a new generation of presidential museums.”
The library closed July 22, 2019, and directors initially planned to reopen a little more than a year later. The pandemic altered those plans, first delaying construction with some supply-train issues, then delaying the reopening.
The new east-side entrance allows people to immediately see through to the courtyard, where Harry and Bess Truman are buried. After a five-minute introductory video, visitors go to the “Plow to Politics” area, which explains Truman’s early life and what led to his political career, culminating with the radio blurb announcing Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and Truman taking the oath of office.
“We tried to look at all the early influences,” said Mark Adams, the library’s director of education.
Those influences include helping on the family farm in Grandview and then taking over when his father died.
“That’s actually his first lesson in leadership,” Adams said, “and then of course World War I changes everything.”
Truman was an artillery captain in the war – he led men in battle and didn’t lose one in combat – and the bonds he forged in the Army later helped launch his political career in Jackson County. An artillery piece of the type Truman’s unit used – a French 75 – is part of the library’s display.
Jumping ahead to the day Truman became president, one display has the hat that Bess Truman wore and Bible on which Truman took the oath of office. That’s an example, the institute’s Cassie Pikarsky said, of how library staff wanted to pair available artifacts with the corresponding picture on a wall of Truman’s swearing-in.
The subsequent exhibit area, structured as a dark tunnel, shows Truman’s first four months in office, with the myriad war-related decisions and events – VE Day, the Potsdam Conference, the testing and use of the atomic bomb, VJ-Day. The display culminates with the juxtaposition of the safety plug from the Nagasaki atomic bomb and a paper crane folded by Hiroshima survivor Sadako Sasaki.
A portion labeled “Lives Lost, Lives Saved” invites visitors to look at Truman’s decision to use the bomb from various perspectives and draw their own conclusions – an approach used through the museum.
The open book where visitors can write their thoughts about the atomic bombings is available again.
“It was so popular we knew we had to keep it,” Pikarsky said.
Perhaps the most impressive exhibit is the large, interactive globe for the “The Hard Problems of Peace.” The surrounding walls show Truman’s policies to combat those issues, including the Berlin airlift, the housing crisis, the G.I. Bill, coal and rail strikes, the emergence of the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, and the Marshall Plan to rescue Western Europe’s economy.
“It’s really the centerpiece of the entire exhibit,” longtime library curator Clay Bauske said. “You realize it can’t wait; he can’t sit back just because the war’s over.”
“It gives visitors something they can really get their hands on.”
Subsequent areas cover Truman’s 1948 election campaign and communist suspicions in the U.S. They also give expanded insights into the Korean War – Truman once called responding to North Korea’s 1950 invasion as his toughest decision – as well as his decision in 1948 to extend diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel and his choice to press for expanded civils rights while in a tough election campaign.
In the role-playing “loyalty review board,” visitors can play both the accuser and accused regarding communism.
“It’s a very powerful experience,” supervisory archivist Sam Rushay said. “We try to ask big questions throughout this exhibit.”
The Oval Office exhibit remains as before, and the Thomas Hart Benton mural that adorns the former main entrance hall now highlights the “Truman’s Independence” area. The “Truman’s Washington” area – including a nod to his “ten happiest years” in the U.S. Senate – sits in the former gift shop area.
In all, the Institute’s capital campaign has raised nearly $39 million – Burden said he’s aiming for $40 million before the “StayTru” campaign ends – with more than 28,000 donors from all 50 states and some international gifts. Besides the renovation, funds will go toward an endowment for operations, enhanced educational programs, expanded public programs and special events.
“It’s been a great response to Harry Truman,” Burden said.
The Examiner’s Jeff Fox contributed to this article.