New Deal for a New Generation: The FDR Library and Museum, Renovated and Rededicated
By Robert Burke Warren
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, and his wife, Eleanor, in 1962, but modern technology at the recently renovated FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park comes thrillingly close to revivifying these icons. In its first major facelift since FDR himself dedicated the library in 1941, state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits offer digitized photo albums, declassified documents, scandalous letters, immersive audio-visual theaters, and rarely seen artifacts. (FDR’s tchotchke-covered desk remains on display.) In some ways, visitors to Hyde Park will know the Roosevelts better than their contemporaries did.
Museum director Lynn Bassanese, one of the prime movers behind the renovation, began working there as a part time archives aid in 1972. In the beginning, she says, “Most of the people who came had a personal connection to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. They didn’t learn about the Depression and World War II in a book — they lived through them. They heard FDR live on the radio and told stories of meeting Eleanor on New York City streets. Our new audience has only read about the Great Depression and World War II; FDR is just another president with a couple of pages in a textbook and certainly Eleanor Roosevelt could be completely unknown to them. That’s why it’s so important in our new exhibits that we tell not only the story of the Roosevelts, but we also introduce people to the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II.”
Indeed, Eleanor gets her due, and it’s impressive. She was the first First Lady to have a relationship with the press, to speak publicly, to have a radio show and newspaper column, to entertain African-American guests at the White House, and to lobby vociferously for worldwide human rights, sometimes directly at odds with her husband’s placating policies. “We’ve made Eleanor Roosevelt a part of the entire story,” Bassanese says, “because indeed she was a vital part of Team FDR. She was deeply involved in the politics and public policy of the Roosevelt administration, and then had a very full career after FDR’s death.” One of the most mesmerizing exhibits is the video of African-American contralto Marian Anderson singing “My Country ‘tis Of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Eleanor arranged the engagement after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson entry to Constitution Hall; Eleanor promptly quit the DAR.
The revamped museum still uses the same humble, Dutch colonial style building that FDR commissioned in 1939, but new sections now thrum with activity and dazzling displays. The New Deal exhibit could be a museum unto itself. FDR’s numerous government agencies and policies (most still operational) get full coverage: FDIC, SEC, Social Security, Disability Insurance, the GI Bill, the March of Dimes, Child Labor Laws, Small Business Loans, Minimum Wage, etc. The walls resound with his distinctive, highborn accent, theatrical and impassioned, so electric with life it’s still a shock to come upon the few photos of him in a wheelchair (equipped with an ashtray, and on display) or propped up with medieval-looking leg braces.
The photographs taken of FDR prior to his 1919 case of polio are fascinating. He is a beautiful man, but also lacking the focus and intensity that would drive him to change the world and, arguably, to save the U.S. from collapse and Europe from fascism. The widely held belief is that polio, which permanently paralyzed him from the waist down, enabled this man of privilege to understand suffering, allowing him to empathize deeply. Rather than follow his advisors’ — and mother’s — recommendation that he retire from politics, Roosevelt never accepted his disability, and became FDR, fighter.
Yet the museum’s new approach steers clear of lionizing the thirty-second president. The “Confront the Issues” section is comprehensive: the Japanese internment camps, the FDR administration’s inaction when faced with the Holocaust, and even the notion that FDR possibly knew the Japanese planned to bomb Pearl Harbor and used it as an excuse to turn public sentiment toward entering WW II. Elsewhere, we learn of the troubled, essentially sexless Roosevelt marriage, their extramarital affairs, and her antagonistic relationship with FDR’s overbearing mother.
“We strongly believed we had to present the history from all perspectives,” says Bassanese. “FDR’s presidential decisions were based on politics, uncertainty, emotions, and the information at hand. Historians, with the benefit of hindsight, have commented and critiqued those decisions and we try to include all of that in our museum.”
All of that and much more. We are all a part of history, but to really feel it, to experience the process, and to see icons as the flawed but noble humans they were, a visit to the renovated Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and Museum is just the ticket.
NOTE: FDR’s home is walking distance from the library/museum and tours are ongoing and highly recommended. The grounds and the Rose Garden, where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried, are free and open from sunrise to sunset
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
4079 Albany Post Road
Hyde Park, NY
For additional information call 1(800) FDR-VISIT or 1(800) 337-8474.
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