A new library coming into view

Mike Genet
A worker from outside takes a view inside after the presidential seal has been affixed on the new main entrance of Truman Library & Museum. Library officials still plan to reopen the building in the fall.

In January, Kurt Graham needed help navigating the new interior of the Truman Library & Museum – unfamiliar as the bare-bones layout was for even the library’s executive director.

Six months later, with the reopening still on track for this fall, Graham said he’s able to start preparing his usual touring narration.

“I walk through it in my mind; I figure out exactly what needs to be said in each room,” Graham said. “Our docents are being in-trained, even as we speak, with our education department, working on the different aspects of Truman’s legacy that are represented here.”

As a government project, the Truman Library’s $30 million renovation project continued through the pandemic – artifacts stored, rooms gutted and reconstructed and a new main entrance built on the building’s east side.

At this point, crews are installing the new permanent exhibits. The Thomas Hart Benton mural “Independence and the Opening of the West” has been unveiled after a specially framed covering protected it during construction. It was among the first things visitors used to see, but with the museum having a new main entrance to the east, the mural becomes part of a new exhibit room.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that construction during the closures in the pandemic was considered an essential service,” Graham said. “Because of the pandemic, sometimes the supply chain has been interrupted. We have had some delays, but all told they’re pretty minor, pretty modest.”

A September opening might not be possible, but the library will likely have a soft opening and be open to the public before a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony with dignitaries can be arranged.

“As soon as exhibits are ready to go, the public will be invited in,” Graham said.

The entire Truman story will be told on the main level of the museum, leaving the basement floor open for larger temporary and special exhibits. The courtyard, where Harry and Bess Truman are buried, remains unchanged.

“It’s going to be different than it was before,” Graham said. “His boyhood, his early years, his courtship with Bess, the Pendergast machine, all those kinds of things will be in the run-up to his becoming a senator, and then vice president and then president.”

With a little more room and plenty more resources than just a couple decades ago, some Truman topics will receive more attention in the new exhibits.

“Many of the topics that we sort of dealt with before but not nearly in as robust of fashion as we wanted to, we’ve been able to in this exhibit,” Graham said. “We’ve got 20 additional years of scholarship since the last exhibit was done, so things like Korea, things like recognition of Israel, his civil rights legacy, World War I, we know a lot more about those things than we did even 20 or 25 years ago.”

“It really is taking shape. It absolutely lives up to every bit of hype and every bit of expectation we’ve tried to create.”

Sometimes with extensive projects, Graham said, museum directors might worry if the result will match the buildup with the public.

“I don’t wonder about that at all,” he said. “I’m very very confident the community is going to enjoy it.”

Truman and race

With the recent local discussion about the Andrew Jackson statues, and Princeton University’s recent announcement that it will remove former school president Woodrow Wilson’s name from a campus building, Truman’s known affinity for both presidents also has come into view. The Jackson statue outside the Historic Truman Courthouse in Independence was a gift from the hometown president.

Graham said he’s confident in Truman’s standing, as he clearly evolved in his views on race over time and ordered the federal workforce and armed forces desegregated – not an insignificant decision given that it came as he started his re-election bid in 1948 and partially caused a Democratic party split. Graham maintains that Truman was the first president to actively use the phrase “civil rights.”

“He grew up in a very Southern family, a Confederate family with very much Confederate sympathies,” Graham said. “So, I’ve always felt it was remarkable the degree to which Harry Truman became a champion of civil rights.”

Graham said a large part of Truman’s admiration for Wilson came from international relations. Wilson – who Graham said is being “rightly called out” for racist policies – championed in vain for the League of Nations after World War I, and Truman remained committed to the United Nations concept that Truman’s predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, helped start. Truman’s first press conference after addressing the U.N. in June 1945 came in Independence, his first hometown visit as president, while returning to Washington.

“He was well aware of what Wilson went through, but it was Harry Truman, who fought as a captain in Wilson’s war, who undid the civil rights blemish on Wilson’s record,” Graham said. “So, I think that Truman stands in pretty good stead when it comes to his record on civil rights.”