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Let’s Get Political: Presidential Libraries and Museums

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US Embassy SealWith Election Day only a few weeks away, you may be tempted to stay home glued to the television as Barack Obama and John McCain duke it out.

But now that “patriotism” is the buzz word of the month, why not show your devotion to our great country by taking a presidential tour? Turns out, there are literally dozens of presidential libraries and museums scattered around the country.

So if you’ve already taken a class trip to Washington, D.C., and oohed over Mount Rushmore, here are some other spots where you can bone up on your presidential history, from George Washington to George W. Bush.

AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM – BRANSON, MO

Branson, Missouri, isn’t all about country music—it’s also the home of the American Presidential Museum displaying presidential artifacts and documents through the decades.

Highlights of the museum include replicas of famous documents such as the Gettysburg address, a full-scale model of the Oval Office, a collection of vintage campaign, convention and inaugural souvenirs from the mid-1800s through the present, and reproductions of 40 great paintings that tell America’s story through art.

White HouseThe museum has both permanent and visiting exhibits which cover presidential history as well as other themes in American history. Most recently it hosted the C-SPAN Presidential Portraits collection of oil paintings, and this summer featured the Laura Ingalls Wilder exhibit about the early pioneer experience in America.

The museum specializes in educational tours and programs for local schools and home-schooled children. Activities include storytimes, games and puzzles, craft projects, and a History Hunt through the museum.

If you’re planning a Branson Christmas visit, don’t miss the museum’s Christmas at the White House exhibit. It features dozens of trees themed from past eras, White House holiday trivia, and more than 40 years of White House Christmas cards and holiday tour books.

www.americanpresidentialmuseum.com

PRESIDENT’S PARK – WILLIAMSBURG, VA

If you’re near Williamsburg, Virginia, check out President’s Park, which Gerald Ford called “a most attractive vehicle for teaching all Americans.” Here, visitors can learn about the history of the country through the lives of the presidents.

The 10-acre complex features 18-foot-high busts of all 42 presidents, include George W. Bush, which were sculpted by internationally-known artist David Adickes. Plates in front of each statue contain detailed biographical and historical information on each president, including highlights of their terms in office.

Interspersed throughout the grounds are displays marking the 14 defining moments in American history, which include such events as the Constitutional Convention, the Louisiana Purchase, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

There is also a small museum which contains exhibits featuring the First Ladies’ gowns and presidential pets, among other items.

Visitors can either take a self-guided tour, or choose from among six guided tours. Each tour has a distinct theme, covering topics such as “The Constitution and The Bill of Rights” and “Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Slavery.”

www.presidentspark.org

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL EXPERIENCE

Mount RushmoreThis traveling collection of presidential memorabilia and artifacts uses Presidential Park as its home base when it’s not on the road.

Recent stops include the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, where it stopped in August, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which it called home for a few days last weekend.

Highlights of the collection include authentic signed documents from each president, a full-size replica of the Oval Office, the fuselage of Air Force One, an actual presidential limousine, and a suffragette exhibit documenting the historic struggle for women’s right to vote.

Though the presidency is a weighty topic, little kids can enjoy this exhibit too because they are encouraged to “try out” all the exhibits and can have their picture taken in the limousine and at the Oval Office desk.

The American Presidential Experience’s next stop is in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where it will be featured alongside the annual Antique Show at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

www.presidentialexperience.com

PRESIDENT’S HALL OF FAME – ORLANDO, FL

It’s no surprise that this theme-park-like museum is located in the theme park capital of America—Orlando, Florida.

Founded as the House of Presidents Wax Museum in 1960, it was expanded in 1990 and now includes miniature replicas of the White House, the Oval Office, and other non-presidential Americana.

Some of the more, um, unconventional offerings include an animatronic likeness of Abraham Lincoln and wax replicas of George W. and Laura Bush, John and Jackie Kennedy, and George Washington.

The miniature replicas were painstakingly hand-carved by miniature artists John and Jan Zweifel, and go on tour around the country from time to time. The model of the White House, which took years to build, was famously attacked by a group of anti-American terrorists many years ago while on tour in Holland. Though it was significantly damaged, the model has since been repaired and now stands as the centerpiece of the Hall of Fame.

Though a little kooky, the museum could offer a welcome diversion for families overloaded on everything Disney.

www.presidentshalloffame.com

KENNEDY LIBRARY – BOSTON, MA

Designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei and not completed until 1979, Kennedy’s library is probably the most architecturally innovative of the presidential libraries. Kennedy had hoped his library would be “a complete record of a presidential era” and an important resource for scholars.

One of the oddest and most interesting artifacts from Kennedy’s life is also located here—the coconut inscribed with a rescue message by Kennedy as he waited on a deserted island along with the crew of his PT-109 boat.

www.jfklibrary.org

TRUMAN LIBRARY – INDEPENDENCE, MO

The Truman Library in the Kansas City suburb of Independence, Missouri, has a large collection of presidential memorabilia, with 15 million pages of documents and 35,000 artifacts associated with the life of President Harry S. Truman. This library is notable for its community events which often take place in the politically important swing state of Missouri. The library sponsors or co-sponsors a large number of forums, panel discussions and even trivia contests for high school students.

www.trumanlibrary.org

REAGAN LIBRARY – SIMI VALLEY, CA

One of the newer presidential libraries, Reagan’s library received an extensive makeover in 2005 that made it the biggest in terms of physical size. The most distinctive feature in President Reagan’s library may be Air Force One, which served a half-dozen heads of state from the 1970s through the 1990s. Also on display is Marine One (the presidential helicopter) as well as a presidential motorcade.

www.reaganlibrary.com

By Karen Elowitt and Matthew Calcara for PeterGreenberg.com.

Looking for more ways to celebrate America? Don’t miss America’s Accessible Heritage to get the inside scoop on Washington DC.

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