Will you visit the Obama museum?

Will you visit the Obama museum? January 10, 2018

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMichelle_and_Barack_Obama.jpg; By Pete Souza (White House (021913PS-0395)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the paper today, “Revised Obama center design seeks better fit with park and answer to critics.”

Addressing criticism that their plans would undermine the serene landscape of historic Jackson Park, backers of the Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday revealed major revisions that include a sleeker version of the center’s controversial museum tower.

The new tower design calls for a high-rise that would be taller, thinner and more transparent than a version unveiled last May, which was widely panned as monolithic and pyramidlike. Portions of the revamped tower’s outside walls would consist of screens made of stone letters, making the tower airier while suggesting the importance of words in Barack Obama’s presidency.

Which motivated me to go back to the website and re-read the descriptions of the museum.  Regular readers will know that I’ve been skeptical of the whole project, including Obama boosters’ dreams that the museum and Obama himself will revitalize the South Side of Chicago, the Madigan proposal to spend $100 million on its construction, and the vagueness about the content of the museum.

And I’m still not seeing anything that really encourages me about the “Center.”

It isn’t a presidential library, in the sense of storing Obama’s records.  That’s going to continue to be done by the National Archives and Records Administration, at some federal facility, with only digitized versions of those records available at the Center.

It will, in part, be a museum, with exhibit space in the “tower” portion of the campus that, according to obama.org,

 will house exhibitions that tell the Obamas’ story, as situated within the context of history: civil rights history, African-American history, the history of Chicago, and United States history.

This is where I ask myself, how will this museum fit in with the existing museum-space of Chicago?  We already have a Chicago History Museum, admission $16 (increasing to $19 after a just-approved fee hike).  We have the DuSable Museum of African American History, admission $10.  Will the Obama Center be competing with these museums?  How much floor space will be devoted to the traditional museum exhibits, and how will this be balanced between the “Obama’s story” — and how will they make “boy growing up mostly with wealthy grandparents and attending pricey universities” into an inspirational tale?  How will they transform 8 years in the White House into something edifying and attention-grabbing?   The Obama website offers some clues in the tiles in its “Our Story” section: Chicago: Where It Began, Life at the White House, American Leadership, Economic Progress, Health Care, Equality & Social Progress, Climate & Energy, and Our First Tech President.  But how do you fashion these into compelling exhibit areas, without falling in to the too-common trap now of simply placing a bunch of monitors with video displays and calling it “interactive”?

And bear in mind that their projected annual attendance, 625,000 – 700,000, is about the level of the Adler Planetarium, and substantially higher than presidential museums have a track record of; the highest-attendance museum is the George W. Bush museum, at about 450,000 presumably because it’s pretty new; other high-attendance museums are the Reagan museum, at about 400,000 (remember, they have Air Force One), and the Clinton museum, at 350,000.  To be sure, Chicago has a larger population to draw from, but, at the same time, we have more museums competing for attention.  In the end, presidential museums seem to keep visitor numbers up by sponsoring special exhibits with a limited connection to the overall topic of the museum and by bringing in school classes on field trips, which tend to be free of charge.

Beyond this optimistic attendance assumption, the notion that this museum will lead to the revival of the South Side seems like mostly wishful thinking — except, of course, to the extent that the occasion of the museum construction or the general city infrastructure spending or the pressure applied to corporations leads them to initiate building projects in the area.  Tourists may perhaps add a day onto their trip, but they’re not likely to stay overnight in the vicinity of the museum, but just at the same hotel they’ve been staying at — and, quite honestly, given the rates and the taxes for city hotels, I wonder how many tourists stay in the city in the first place.

But that’s just the museum/exhibit space proper.  And the plans for the Center are much more ambitious than that:  part of the tower will be the museum.

The rest of the building will be filled with other public spaces, including the top floor which will feature a reflective observation space that will be free and open to the public, with spectacular views of Lake Michigan and Jackson Park.

There will also be a second building, two story, called the Forum.

The Forum is two-story public meeting space, with one story above grade and one below ground, where people of all backgrounds can come together for programming. Visitors might take in a performance in the auditorium, create something in the broadcast studio, visit the public winter garden, or even grab a bite to eat in the restaurant. Like much of the Campus, the majority of this space will be free and open to the public.

According to a Tribune column, this building is also slated to have a “test kitchen.”

There will also be what’s being called a “library building” even though there won’t be any document repository.

The Library Building is the third main building of the campus — a portal for visitors to engage with the world beyond the Obama Presidential Center. More than a building housing documents from the past, we want this to be a place for visitors to play a real role in building our collective future. With that in mind, to tap into the existing learning network within the city, the Foundation is currently exploring the possibility of a partnership with the Chicago Public Library.

Which makes it sound as if they don’t really know what they’ll do with this building.  After all, there are multiple library branches in that part of town, including one just a bit south.

Oh, and there will be an Athletic Center.

The Athletic Center will invite the community to take part in physical activity year round, highlighting the importance of teamwork and exercise through sports. It will provide opportunities for programming partnerships with local institutions, including Hyde Park Academy, the South Side YMCA, and the Chicago Park District Field House.

So all of these activities sound more like a souped-up community center than anything else, and a souped-up community center isn’t going to draw tourists, however nice it might be for the community — and even then, there’s already a community center, the South Shore Cultural Center, just south of there (I don’t know why it’s not mentioned in the above paragraph, unless that’s what the Chicago Park District Field House is).  And given that community centers are not just something of which, “the more, the merrier,” whatever sort of yoga classes the Obama Center offers would be competing for students with other such programs.

And on top of this, there have been ongoing reports (sorry, no links) about the Center as a site for conferences and as a home base for the Foundation’s work in community development.  But there’s nothing in the description that suggests that there will be a substantial amount of office space.

So I guess what it comes down to is that it seems like it has a very high chance of ultimately being a bust, and a tremendous waste of money and effort, relative to the amount of private and public money that’s being spent on it.  And, as an incidental snarky comment, should all of the wishes of community leaders come true, then it won’t take long before they start complaining that rising property values are pricing people out of the neighborhood.


Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMichelle_and_Barack_Obama.jpg; By Pete Souza (White House (021913PS-0395)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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