by David B. Woolner, Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian, The Roosevelt Institute
In the summer of 2000, a group of historians gathered at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum to examine the question of how the permanent exhibit at the FDR Library might be reconfigured for a new generation. The group, which included some of America’s most well-respected historians, was led by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who at the close the two-day session, drew up a report based on the proceeding that was issued to the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.
At the core of the discussion and the report that followed was the question of how best to interpret or re-interpret the tumultuous events of the Roosevelt era? How could we help a generation that was born long after Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had gone understand what it was like to live through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the birth of the United Nations or the early years of the civil rights movement?
What topics and issues should be included? How should such controversial issues as the internment of Japanese-Americans or America’s response to the Holocaust be treated? Should we represent Eleanor Roosevelt’s career as separate from FDR’s in the exhibit or should her impact on his life and presidency be intertwined throughout?
Given the enormous historical scope of the Roosevelt era, which—when one includes the influence that Theodore Roosevelt had on Franklin and Eleanor—includes much of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that this initial report did not try to answer all of these questions. Instead it offered a framework from which a smaller historians committee and the staffs of the Roosevelt Institute and FDR Library might draw guidance as they set about the colossal task of trying to develop a new exhibit that would bring one of the most dramatic periods in American history to life for a new generation.
Over the next several years, the historians committee, working closely with the staff and the design team of Gallagher and Associates, would grapple with both the history of the period and how best to present it to the public. With respect to the question of Eleanor Roosevelt, it soon became apparent that her life and influence were so intertwined with Franklin’s that the most meaningful and realistic way to present her in the exhibit was to incorporate her activities with his. The committee also quickly concluded that it was important to remind the visitors that the Great Depression was not confined to the United States but was part of a larger world economic crisis that helped give rise to fascism in Europe and militarism in Asia.
In the same spirit, the committee also came to the conclusion that FDR’s decades-long struggle with polio deserved far more treatment than it had had in the past. While, at the same time, after much discussion and consideration, it was decided that the best way to treat such difficult topics as Japanese internment and the Holocaust was not to take a position, but to present the public with a variety of documents, evidence and different historical interpretations so that they might have the opportunity to make up their own minds about why these tragic events occurred.
Most important of all, the committee thought it was critical to point out the myriad of ways that the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt continue to touch our own, through the transformative programs of the New Deal, which forever changed the relationship between the American people and their government, to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which since its ratification at the United Nations in 1948 has become the “Magna Charta of humanity.”
Nearly three quarters of a century ago, in the midst of the most terrible war in human history, Franklin D. Roosevelt opened this historic library in the hope that by doing so he might encourage a generation of Americans “so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” It is the sincere hope of all of the historians who took part in the creation of this new exhibit that the work we have carried out here will build on the profound legacy established by these two extraordinary Americans, so that a new generation may discover, as FDR advised all those years ago, how to build a better future from the past.
The distinguished members of the historians committee were Allida Black, Alan Brinkley, William Leuchtenburg, Edward Linenthal, William J. vanden Heuvel, Geoffrey Ward, and David Woolner. The Roosevelt Library is grateful to the committee for its hard work, collegiality, and enthusiasm. The new permanent exhibit project simply could not have been done without this incredible community of Roosevelt scholars.