Day Trips: Captivating Exhibits at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Step back in time and experience the presidency of JFK at his presidential library and museum.

Day Trips: Captivating Exhibits at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Photo by History in HD / Unsplash

Anyone who has known me for a long time knows I have a love and fascination for American history. Lately, I've been making it a point to visit as many Presidential libraries as I can across the country. Just last year, I had the chance to explore the FDR library during my trip through the beautiful Hudson Valley in New York. Now, on this Presidents' Day weekend in 2024, I've decided to embark on a day trip to the John F Kennedy presidential library. Kennedy is an incredibly intriguing president because he symbolizes the endless possibilities that could have unfolded had he not tragically lost his life on that fateful day, November 22, 1963. Presidential libraries serve as captivating biographies of our leaders, and this one is certainly no exception.

I started my tour by watching a film at the entrance to the museum narrated by Kennedy himself on his life story leading up to 1960. The films generally run in two theaters and start times are every 15 minutes between theaters. The film lasts about 20 minutes and essentially acts as a foundational piece to the museum. The interesting aspect is Kennedy never shied away from the fact that he was the son of a diplomat and used that and the connections made by his father to establish his own path in life. After walking around this area, I proceeded to walk down to the exhibits area. You can also take the elevator, but I opted to take the stairs, because…exercise.

As you enter the exhibits area, you are immediately transported back to the Democratic National Convention of 1960, where Kennedy received his presidential nomination. A film featuring Kennedy's speech from the convention is playing, along with "storefronts" displaying artifacts from the historic campaign between Kennedy and Nixon. You can also explore a replica of the Kennedy campaign headquarters. The looped Kennedy-Nixon televised debate is a fascinating watch, especially considering how civil it was compared to modern debates. This part of the exhibit is both colorful and interactive.

The exhibit continues through his inauguration and the legendary speech he gave. Kennedy was a terrific orator, and his speeches are legendary for a reason. Kennedy is essentially a “Cold War” president, and managed through the increasing of tensions that had been taking place since the end of WWII, and this presidential library doesn’t shy from it. I continued through the exhibits highlighting his moves as president. The foreign conflicts that were taking place at the time, including Vietnam, Cuba, and the rise of the Soviet Union. You also see his involvement in establishing the space program, also linked to the Cold War as Russia’s program was already going at that time.

There’s a terrific interactive exhibit as you enter the “presidency” area called “JFK and the press”, and you would essentially act as the spokesman for the president and review a briefing of news events in connection to a question posed by the news media. You would select the answer, and find who answered it (I picked Civil Rights, and the quote I selected as an “answer” to the press was from baseball player Jackie Robinson). You can pick different topics such as Cuba, women’s rights and other issues at the time.

The museum's portrayal of JFK's assassination is done with grace. In a dimly lit room, there's a display featuring the date of his death (November 22, 1963) and a continuous loop of the CBS News bulletin from that day. Visitors can hear Walter Cronkite reporting the news as it happened, followed by footage of JFK's funeral. This section leads into the final part of the museum, which delves into JFK's legacy and the memorials dedicated to him. Additionally, there's a piece of the Berlin Wall on exhibit. As someone who grew up during the end of the Cold War and watched as a young boy the tearing down of the Berlin Wall from afar, seeing any display of the Berlin Wall always fills me with emotion.

The museum was a really positive experience for me. I actually learned quite a few things and didn't feel like I was being influenced. However, it's important to keep in mind that presidential libraries tend to present a one-sided view that favors the president being profiled. Despite that, I still think it's worth checking out. One thing that really stuck with me was how JFK was so media-savvy. He knew exactly how to use the media to his advantage when he wanted to shape history. I would have liked to see more about the assassination, but I understand it's a sensitive topic with many different theories. It's hard not to wonder if the events leading up to the assassination played a role. I guess we'll never really know for sure! Overall, I think this place is definitely worth a visit and it won't take up too much of your time.