||Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Library-Museum experienced many changes in 50 years
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · August 03, 2012
Over the 50 years of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum, the facility has undergone four additions and seen its attendance vary from year to year.
And the changing times also affected how its own staff viewed its job, and how far it could reach with its purpose, according to those who have overseen the facility.
Purpose to preserve
Thomas Schwartz, the current director, there was the simple purpose of processing the materials “so the public knew what was where with finding aids,” but that has expanded to putting information on the Internet, giving it a global audience.
“Now there is an attempt to further refine those finding aids,” he said.
The finding aids are more complex than punching terms into a Web search engine, he said.
“Someone may call and ask, ‘What do you have that defines his term as commerce secretary?’” he said. “We have hundreds of boxes with folders, but we need to clarify what is in those folders so researchers can decide whether they want to come, or what they want to request.”
Schwartz said that presidential records are “platforms for learning” and that historians are always reinterpreting the past.
“There will always be a need for people to access these materials,” he said. “And yet there is still an intrinsic value to preserving the real documents. People have an innate need to see the ‘real,’ to hold the ‘real’. It takes an abstract idea or story and makes it concrete — it makes it flesh and blood in a way a virtual scan doesn’t.”
Former Director Tim Walch said every presidential library-museum had three primary functions, though they are carried out with different emphasis:
• Giving people access to research material — “Our job is not the polish his image, but to allow people to read” the documents, Walch said.
• Education — Schools from a 50-mile radius visit the facility every year.
• Exhibition — Displaying artifacts and items.
The Library-Museum has undergone four major renovations since opening in 1962.
Schwartz said the first three largely dealt with storage space and reading room, though the auditorium was added early on, too, and served as important meeting space.
“The last renovation — 1992 — was the one the public has benefited most from (because) it created the current exhibits. It created a very engaging narrative of Hoover’s life, a cradle-to-grave story.”
Walch said the first museum was “more of a mausoleum than a museum,” displaying Hoover’s trophies and such. In the 1970s, that changed to walnut cases each displaying a different chapter of Hoover’s life.
Then, in 1987, Richard Norton Smith took over as director and worked on the renovation that would open five years later.
Smith found partners in Sen. Chuck Grassley and Oregon Sen. Bob Hatfield (Hoover lived in Oregon for six or seven years). The senators got $5 million in federal funding; Smith led the drive that found another $3 million in donations for the expansion.
Smith also helped create some of the most popular exhibits, causing a spike in attendance that has been unmatched since, Walch said. After Smith left, Walch, assistant director under Smith, was promoted to director.
“(Smith) was like an evangelist — he gets people excited,” Walch said. “And I’m like the village parson who has to hold on to the communicants after the evangelist leaves town.”
Hoover wanted his museum to fit in with the surrounding area so the building has low ceilings for a museum — about 11 feet — compared to 12 to 16 feet in others, Walch said.
But that renovation was a project of Smith’s “gift and skill,” he said.
“Once we get people off the interstate and in our parking lot, we’ve got them,” Walch said. “They love us.”
Visitors often tell staff that, coming into the museum, they only knew of Hoover for the Great Depression, or heard that he was “mean,” Walch said.
“They learned a caricature of him,” he said. “But they find out about his generosity, they are amazed at the nature of his story and they learn his was not a personal failure — they go away fulfilled.”
Hoover and his family
Hoover was 88 years old when the Library-Museum was opened and dedicated. Two years later, he would die.
“We knew death was coming,” Walch said of the staff, “but it was difficult to know how long (we would wait). He had an incredible constitution.”
There were only five or six people on staff at the time, but D.C. considered it a state funeral, so the service in West Branch got federal help.
The body was flown to Cedar Rapids and the procession started there and rolled into West Branch. It was October, and corn fields were harvested to make room for cars coming from all over, Walch said. No one did an official count, but he said stories estimate that between 10,000 and 75,000 people attended.
“No question the internment of a president is a big deal,” he said. “Lots of people will mark events by which president they’ve seen. That funeral was clearly a major event.”
Even after Hoover’s death, the Hoover family kept up a close relationship with the Library-Museum, Walch said, to the point that other directors of presidential libraries would point it out.
“There is no (presidential) family with more generosity and assistance (than Hoover’s),” he said. He called Herbert “Pete” Hoover III, who died in 2010, one of his mentors (Walch said his “Mount Rushmore” of mentors includes Hoover III, Floyd Fawcett, Forbes “Ozzie” Olberg, Bill Quarton and Herb Wilson) and said that Andy Hoover continues to impress him, even after losing his home in the Colorado wildfires this summer.
It’s been 20 years since that last renovation, and the Library-Museum staff are planning another, though it has gone through some changes just in the discussion phase and with Schwartz coming on as the new director a year ago.
He agrees there is a need for a renovation, but noted that the previous expansions were “discreet.”
“We never thought about how they would impact the entire facility,” he said. “It created a lot of odd sorts of space.”
Schwartz said he wants to see a renovation with a comprehensive approach.
“We should figure out all of the needs, and have a discussion with the Hoover Association, National Archives (Records Administration) and National Park Service,” he said. “Right now, we are finalizing what we think our needs are.”
If the “partners” agree with those needs “and are comfortable with the price tags,” then the plan gets sent to Washington D.C. for approval.
“We’ve been working on it for a year now,” Schwartz said.
Walch said that, in 1962, the people behind the museum probably “felt they had exactly what they wanted.”
Today, opportunities with technology and the Internet have leaders looking at new ways to tell Hoover’s story and reach more people.
Walch said Hoover’s death “was really a blow to the library” because his influence only decreases over time, and fundraising gets more difficult.
However, Walch believes the selection of Schwartz to replace him was “an exceptional choice.” Schwartz served as the chief historian for exhibits and content at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and was director of Research and the Lincoln Collection in the Lincoln Library, both in Illinois.
“That proved to me the hand of God exists,” Walch said. “That was a real gift when I retired.”
Here are attendance figures for the Hoover Library-Museum starting in 1963 (the end of the first fiscal year). Director Thomas Schwartz said the federal government's fiscal year used to run from July 1 to June 30 the next year. In fiscal year 1976, that changed to October 1 to September 30 of the next year and remains intact today.
FY 1963 45,200
FY 1973 82,870
FY 1983 59,637
FY 1993 84,964
FY 2003 65,639
FY 2010 52,900
Here is how space in the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum started out in 1962, and how it changed over time:
1962 -- 7,000 square feet -- Museum took up about half the space, with archives and offices taking up the other half.
1971 -- 22,400 square feet -- Achives significantly expanded with addition, museum expands by taking over existing space, auditorium added
1974 -- 34,200 square feet -- Addition adds to archives, museum and offices
1992 -- 46,000 square feet -- Museum space nearly doubles, offices expand significantly, archives take on more of the existing space as well and benefits with a small addition