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5 presidential libraries that offer culture, history and ‘labs of democracy’

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  • EISENHOWER PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM / NEW YORK TIMES
                                An exhibition at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kan., covers President Eisenhower’s 1952 election.

    EISENHOWER PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM / NEW YORK TIMES

    An exhibition at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kan., covers President Eisenhower’s 1952 election.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is located near Boston Harbor.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is located near Boston Harbor.

  • FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY / NEW YORK TIMES
                                One of the galleries at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., spotlights a timeline of important events of World War II.

    FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY / NEW YORK TIMES

    One of the galleries at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., spotlights a timeline of important events of World War II.

As repositories of valuable historical documents and other records, U.S. presidential libraries have long been important destinations for scholars. But you don’t have to be an academic or even a history buff to appreciate these destinations, as many increasingly offer museums, special exhibitions and unique programming — ranging from interactive situation room experiences to musical performances — to the general public.

The first library was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt and opened to the public in 1941. Every administration since has created one of its own. (Herbert Hoover, liking what he saw of FDR’s project, established his own retroactively, in 1962.) Fifteen libraries are managed by the Office of Presidential Libraries, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration — the Presidential Libraries Act, passed in 1955, established the system of privately built and federally maintained institutions — and 13 are currently open to visitors. There are additional museums, historic monuments and sites dedicated to other presidents, such as the James Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, and some have archival components, as does the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

“President Reagan called the libraries labs of democracy because they explain how decisions are made and how policies are executed,” said Colleen Shogan, the archivist of the United States. “They give us the opportunity to learn about American democracy, and how the government functions.”

With last week’s Presidents Day just celebrated, consider planning a visit to a presidential library. Here are five to start.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (Hyde Park, N.Y.)

The 32nd president had a vision for an institution that showcased his legacy and provided transparency on the inner workings of the government. Now his presidential library and museum (admission $10) is home to his records and Eleanor Roosevelt’s extensive archives. Permanent exhibitions include an interactive exploration of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, the controversial internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and immersive, period-specific Fireside Chat rooms. There’s currently a temporary exhibition (through Dec. 31) exploring the Civil Rights Movement, including the Roosevelts’ political evolution on the matter over the years.

While in Hyde Park, you can also visit the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, which includes the former first lady’s Val-Kil Cottage and walking paths, or the renowned Culinary Institute of America, a picturesque campus where you’ll find chefs-in-training showcasing their skills at multiple eateries.

George W. Bush Presidential Center (Dallas)

The museum at George W. Bush’s Presidential Center (admission $20 to $26) delves into topics including the hotly debated 2000 election and the events and aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus a replica of the Oval Office (where, yes, you can sit behind the desk for a photo). The museum’s temporary exhibition, “Freedom Matters,” focuses on the idea and pursuit of freedom, and showcases a collection of artifacts, including a version of the Magna Carta from the 14th century and rare versions of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence (through Dec. 31). The center’s events calendar is diverse, ranging from holiday teas to an upcoming event with news anchor Savannah Guthrie (Feb. 15).

After a visit to the library, you’ll have all of Dallas at your disposal, but it’s worth exploring the Southern Methodist University campus, including the Meadows Museum, which focuses on Spanish art and culture. When you’ve worked up an appetite, refuel with oysters and crudo at Montlake Cut from Dallas restaurateur Nick Badovinus, or get a sugar rush at a local favorite, Mustang Donuts.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum (Simi Valley, Calif.)

Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library & Museum (admission $6 to $16) is home to a slate of educational events and permanent exhibits, including displays dedicated to the 1981 assassination attempt on the president, an interactive exploration of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall (complete with a large piece of the wall itself), and an Air Force One Pavilion, where visitors can walk through an Air Force One plane. Next month, the museum will host a new space-centric exhibition showcasing items from Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise (March 15 to Sept. 8). The library and museum also have the benefit of location: Perched in the hills north of Los Angeles, the site provides visitors panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

In addition to being an easy drive to Los Angeles, you’re close to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a stunning destination for hiking, camping and wildflower spotting.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Boston)

No presidency is glamorized quite as much as JFK’s, America’s very own Camelot. His museum (admission $8 to $18) is a showcase of his brief but impactful moment in history, while simultaneously pulling back the curtain on some of the administration’s inner workings. Exhibitions cover the early days of the U.S. space program, the founding of the Peace Corps and an exhibit dedicated to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Currently, there’s a temporary exhibit (through Jan. 25, 2025) focused on World War II that highlights both the Kennedy family’s experience in the conflict along with stories of women and people of color in the war. The library also has a full slate of family-­friendly arts programming, including live music, readings and dance performances.

Overlooking Boston Harbor, the museum has a stunning view of the estuary. Weather permitting, it’s also a great jumping off point for the Boston Harborwalk, a 43-mile greenway that lines the city’s waterfront.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home (Abilene, Kan.)

Travelers to Kansas would do well to plan a stop in Abilene where, in addition to a recently renovated museum and library (admission $7 to $20), you have the opportunity to tour the boyhood home of the 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The revamped museum itself is worth the trip, with exhibitions connecting the suffrage movement of the 1920s with Eisenhower’s 1952 election. This year, look for a new exhibition focused on the Cold War, and a conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (June 24 to July 2) with in-person and virtual components, and a sunset symphony performance to mark D-Day (June 1).

When in Abilene, you can ride a 100-year-old steam engine at the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad, get a taste of the Wild West in Old Abilene Town and see the World’s Largest Belt Buckle in Eisenhower Park & Rose Garden.

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