BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Nestled on 10 acres of waterfront property along Dorchester’s Columbia Point, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum faces the sea, an apt location given JFK’s love of the ocean. If you’ve never visited the Museum, now’s a perfect time to absorb the rich history that awaits within its halls. And if you’ve stopped by in the past, new exhibits beckon.
Columbia Point was not the original site chosen for the Library and Museum. In 1961, JFK himself began the process of establishing his library in Cambridge, envisioning a venue that would provide both a home for his official papers as well as a personal office for himself once he left the presidency.
In 1963, shortly before his fatal trip to Dallas, he went to Cambridge to personally select a location adjacent to his alma mater, Harvard University. Although plans for the Library and Museum continued after his death, the obstacles became such that, more than a decade later, the Cambridge location proved impossible due to construction issues coupled with concerns from local residents regarding traffic.
And so Jacqueline Kennedy selected the serene Boston Harbor site, which donated by the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She also decided upon the services of renowned architect I. M. Pei, who would go on to design a gleaming white geometric structure, accented by a striking tower and a tinted glass pavilion. The official ground breaking occurred in 1977 and the living memorial to our 35th President was completed just two years later.
Then as now, the mission of the Library and Museum has been “to further advance the study and understanding of President Kennedy’s life and career and the times in which he lived, and to promote a greater appreciation of America’s political and cultural heritage, the process of governing and the importance of public service.”
While the Library contains official Presidential documents, recordings and videos, it is also a treasure trove of personal artifacts and memorabilia. Kennedy family members wanted to make sure that the Library and Museum would be the only national memorial to the fallen president so they provided a host of items from their own private collections, with Jacqueline taking a personal hand in overseeing the displays and exhibits depicting Kennedy family life.
Among the more than two dozen multimedia exhibits chronicling President Kennedy’s life and career, visitors can experience the first televised presidential debate, Mrs. Kennedy’s historic televised tour of the White House, press conferences with the president, Mrs. Kennedy’s iconic clothing, political campaign memorabilia, and recreations of White House corridors. A replica of The Oval Office is a particularly popular exhibit as it features many of the personal items that rested on JFK’s desk when he was President.
Through the end of his year, the Museum will be hosting the special exhibit, “In Her Voice: Jacqueline Kennedy, The White House Years.” Showcasing excerpts from an oral history Mrs. Kennedy recorded in 1964 with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former Special Assistant to the President Arthur Schlesinger, the exhibit coincides with the publication of the related book and CD set, Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy
Originally a series of seven extensive interviews, the recordings were made just months after JFK’s death. Mrs. Kennedy wanted to preserve her memories of family life in the White House as well as her reflections on world events that took place during that same time. She also insisted the recordings be sealed and held by the Library. With the cooperation of the family, they are now being shared as part of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s presidency.
In addition to the recordings in Mrs. Kennedy’s own voice, the exhibit includes such special items as: the tea set presented to Mrs. Kennedy by Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev on June 4, 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis paperweight calendar President Kennedy gave to Mrs. Kennedy in November of 1962; a never-before-displayed ancient Egyptian bracelet given to Mrs. Kennedy by the president; and assorted family photos of JFK, Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John Jr.
The Library and Museum also represent the strong connection the president maintained with respect to his ancestral history. JFK’s eight great-grandparents left Ireland during the potato famine in search of a better life. While the Kennedys hailed from Dunganstown, County Wexford, the Fitzgeralds were originally from Bruff, County Limerick. When JFK made his historic pilgrimage to Ireland in June of 1963 as the first American president to visit Ireland during his term in office, he remarked: “When my great-grandfather left here [in 1848] to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. I am glad to say that all of his great-grandchildren have valued that inheritance.”
Included in the Museum’s collection from that 1963 visit is the Irish blackthorn walking stick the president received from his cousin Jimmy Kennedy, a Carrickmacross lace napkin (part of a set of 36) presented by Irish Prime Minister Sean LeMass, and a striking Waterford crystal vase. The Waterford piece, a gift from the New Ross Harbor Commissioners, contains etchings depicting the Kennedy homestead, The White House, an immigrant ship, and the New Ross coat of arms.
Also among the items in the Museum’s collection is the Fitzgerald family Bible upon which JFK laid his hand while taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. Brought to America by JFK’s ancestors, the 1850 edition Douay English translation Bible contains a family tree tracing the Fitzgeralds back to 1857.
Additional items of Irish interest include: The Sword of John Barry, which JFK displayed in the Oval Office (Barry, born in Co. Wexford, was founder of the US Navy and a onetime commander of the USS Constitution who served in the Revolutionary War) and The Treaty of Ormonde and O’Kennedy, written in Latin, dated 1336, and marking the first known mention of the Kennedy name in Irish recorded history.
Beyond its exhibits and extensive historic collection, the Library is a vital research facility. As well, the Library and Museum host everything from debates and lectures to contemporary cultural events. The Kennedy Library Forums are a series of public discussions featuring historical, political, and cultural figures and topics. Upcoming events include an analysis of the Obama presidency, a discussion of the literary life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and an evening with former PBS host Jim Lehrer.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
Administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, at Columbia Point in Dorchester, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 7 days per week, with the exception of New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Information: 617-514-1600 or jfklibrary.org.