Having spent the last few days visiting North American museums, the plan to set up a Presidential Library, Museum and Exhibition Centre in Kenya caught my attention.
The pressure to frame past presidents’ legacies for future generations is now on. It remains to be seen whether nostalgia or igniting the national imagination will be its focus.
North America has established 13 presidential libraries over the last 50 years. Although they are called libraries, they are archives and museums that bring together documents and artifacts for lovers and students of US history.
The buildings and their content belong to the American people. Together, they house more than 400 million pages, 10 million photographs and 100,000 audio and video-tape recordings.
The amount of motion picture film they contain could line the road between Mombasa and Lokichogio five times. Millions of people pass through their doors annually. The most popular of the museums are those of Reagan and Clinton. Hoover and Nixon’s are the least popular.
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The North American experience is very relevant for the plans to establish a memorial library ‘initially’ for former Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki.
Many North American museums remain preoccupied with the material culture of executive power, its’ protocols, replicas and architecture. Too much attention and cost has gone into recreating a self-absorbed nostalgia with the pen he used, the chair he sat on and his favourite car.
Grasping to be politically correct, too little attention is paid to the dilemmas and demons they faced or the frailty of their characters. At their worst, the libraries are exercises in myth-making and legacy narrative control.
Recent plans for the 14th library for Barack Obama have generated interesting discussions on the purpose and organisation of a presidential library. Obama’s proposed library in Chicago breaks with the past in two ways.
The museum will be owned and operated by the Obama Foundation and the President’s papers will be the property of the National Archives, not the foundation. Traditionally, American libraries have been built with public financing and private donations. These private donations have often been made to sitting presidents and not transparently declared. Public disclosure of who and how much is being contributed matters for the integrity of our own museum.
Our presidential museum must avoid other risks. The purpose of a presidential library is to honestly reveal the distinctiveness of the period and the decisions and dilemmas of its leadership. The legacies of the three past presidents and that of the current are very different. Collapsing them into a single space seems to be a recipe for blurring national history.
Leadership, personal character and legacy matters in a presidential library. There is a reason why the museums of bold and charismatic leaders like Reagan and Clinton attract and the controversial Nixon and Hoover’s do not.
Those presidents who left office with high public approval ratings tend to have more visitors than those who left publicly scorned. Remaining honest in the face of the TJRC report or Joe Khamisi’s “Looters and Grabbers: 54 years of corruption and plunder by the elite (1963-2017)” is the presidential team’s first challenge.
To frame a powerful story-line, planners of our first Presidency Museum should look to National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Muhammad Ali Center in Washington DC and Louisville, Kentucky. Both offer more inspiring models of recreating history.
They weave personal stories and public narrative with complexity and clarity. Values of integrity, courage, humility and extra-ordinary public service ooze from those walls. Visitors are left with not just past stories but how past choices and sacrifices relate to the present.
Values rather than descriptive tales should drive the heart of our presidential museum. It is not clear which these could be. One approach could be to ask citizens to describe the experience they want when they visit the future museum. Having listened to what Kenyans are curious about and value as important, script a narrative that inspires us in Ali’s words “to be great and do great things”. Eid Mubarak all.