The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley has a most interesting exhibit dedicated to not our 40th president (although he is also well represented, starting with his name and statue at the front door), but our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The collection of signed documents, personal effects, books, papers, clothing, and the bed and pillow where Lincoln rested after being shot, as well as set decorations and costumes from the recent Steven Spielberg-directed DreamWorks Studios’ film, Lincoln will be on display until September 30th.
The most interesting pieces, especially when contrasted with the way modern presidents operate, are the speeches, letters, and documents in Lincoln’s own hand. Included here are a signed copy of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. One document, a map of Huron drawn up by Lincoln as a young man and surveyor, contains a spelling error. The map was sold to pay off creditors, but the frontier town was never built. The great man’s pocket watch is also on display, along with his iconographic stove pipe hat.
Many of the pieces in the exhibit are on loan to the library from across the nation. In addition to DreamWorks, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, the National Archives, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, are among the major lenders.
Of course, Ronald Reagan is well documented and represented every day at the library that bears his name. It is actually one of two presidential libraries located near Los Angeles, the other being Richard Nixon’s in Yorba Linda. Reagan’s life and presidency are presented through photographs and artifacts, including a searchable daily diary, his clothing and personal items, and lots and lots of film clips, which is to be expected when the president is also a former actor. Attention is given to nearly every milestone in his presidency. There are pieces of the Berlin Wall, and an informative installation on the fall of communism and Reagan’s relationship with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In speech writing and personal correspondence, something Reagan was known for, many of the documents were handwritten, at least in draft form. And in this, he shares much with Lincoln. It was strange to see pictures and artifacts showing Reagan writing by hand. These documents were later typed up—on typewriters!—for publication. His speeches in type showed his additions and notes, and were often in large typeface to enable him to read them at a podium. Throughout his presidency, Reagan kept a daily diary in large red notebooks. During the tour, people can peruse the pages of this diary by entering specific dates, or by flipping through pages in sequence. The complete, unabridged diary is available in a two-volume set in the museum store for $150.
What gets the most press in the entire library is the installation of Air Force One. I remember when it was moved through the Los Angeles area from 11 PM to 5 AM on June 20-21, 2003. According to the museum, the Boeing 707 traveled “on a specially designed trailer crossing four freeways, traveling 104 miles.” The aircraft flew seven U.S. presidents—Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush. Surrounding the mammoth plane are Marine One, a presidential limousine, a Secret Service SUV, and a police car with several motorcycles. Patrons get to file through the plane and see how the president traveled. I found the inside quite small, actually, and a little claustrophobic. I’m sure the plane President Obama uses, a Boeing 747-200B, is roomier.
I think the least impressive thing about my day at the library were the other patrons in attendance. Walking through the exhibits and galleries, I was struck by the amount of misinformation people were sharing. Doesn’t anyone teach American history anymore? It was rather disconcerting to overhear some of the “facts” that were being shared. Most people acted as if they were at an amusement park, not a library or museum. I do think when looking at an artifact of historical significance, especially one from a murder of a president like the bloody pillow from under Lincoln’s head, more respect should be paid. Instead, the mother and son next to me were arguing: “I don’t see the blood,” the teenage son kept insisting. “It’s right there,” his mother responded while putting fingertip to glass.
Admission to the museum is $16 for adults, $9 for teenagers, and children can get in for $5. Four and under are free. The museum is open 10 AM to 5 PM every day. Parking is free, but the lot fills up fast. I had to park down the hill from the library on the street. Trams are provided for offsite parking which drop patrons right at the front door of the library, and returns them to their cars when their visit is over. The library and museum tour involves a lot of walking, approximately two miles, according to one docent I spoke with. There are ample break areas, including two restaurants where one could take a break, sit down, and have a cup of coffee or other beverage as well as food. Photography without flash is allowed in the museum, but no pictures may be taken inside of Air Force One.