When the museum honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower reopens this week after a year-long overhaul, visitors will get much of the “incredible, awesome” story of the 34th President of the United States from the last president and first lady born in the 19th century themselves.
“Ike and Mamie are going to tell their own story,” curator William Snyder said during a preview in June, pointing out oversized quotes from the couple included in each gallery within the 25,000-square-foot exhibition space and mini-theaters showing seven new films. “We have a wealth of great stuff providing their written and spoken words from our collection here in Abilene and the National Archives holdings.”
Besides the new perspective and stories shared, the complete reimagining of the museum’s interior space modernizes the original building, incorporates the latest exhibit technology and design, and updates content with information from continuing research of Eisenhower’s roles as supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War II and president.
“We are unique among the presidential museums in that we have a 40-year military career as well as eight years of presidency to talk about,” Snyder said.
Museum officials plan to open their doors to the public Monday for the first time since June 2018. The original schedule was to open in time for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in early June, but the federal government shutdown earlier this year delayed the timeline because the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is one of 14 facilities overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries in the National Archives and Records Administration.
Finishing touches are still in process, so this is considered a soft opening, said Samantha Keener, the site’s communications director. She advises visitors considering a trip to Abilene, about 90 miles north of Wichita, specifically to visit the museum this week to call 785-263-6764 or visit their new website www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov to see if the museum is open. Summer hours – 8 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. – are scheduled to end on July 31; hours the remainder of the year are 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily.
A dedication ceremony for the redesign is planned for Saturday, Oct. 12 to coincide with Ike’s birthday weekend. The museum building sits across from the library on a 22-acre campus with five other Eisenhower-related attractions within walking distance of one another. All are open to the public.
•The former elementary school where Ike first enrolled is a visitor center with a gift shop and a 23-minute introductory film.
•Ike’s six-room boyhood home, occupied by the Eisenhower family from 1898 until his mother’s death in 1946, is open for tours.
•The Place of Meditation is where Ike, Mamie and their first-born son Doud, who died at age 3, are buried. The building, designed by Kansas State architect James Canole and made of native limestone quarried in Cottonwood Falls, has an area for meditation per Ike’s wishes.
•A bronze statue of Ike in the familiar World War II “Eisenhower Jacket” stands between the library and museum buildings. Sculptor Robert L. Dean, Jr. completed three other statues of Eisenhower: at his birthplace of Denison, Texas, on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy and on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in London.
•On the east end of the campus, behind the bronze statue, are five pylons completed in 1956 as a project of the Kansas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in cooperation with the Soroptimists International clubs of Kansas. They were moved to their current location in 1962 when the library building was dedicated.
The Eisenhower Foundation formed here in 1945 to honor Abilene’s most famous son and the nation’s first five-star general. The family home opened to the public in 1947 as a World War II Veterans Memorial, then the museum opened in 1954. Ike served as president from 1953-1961, and the Eisenhower Presidential Library opened in 1962.
As the home refocused into a presidential site, so did the museum. Its building expanded twice, with new galleries added each time. This is the first chance to form the entire 25,000 square feet into one comprehensive story arc, said director Dawn Hammatt.
Visitors start in a gallery exploring Ike’s childhood life in Abilene, then move into a section that explores his early military postings and mentors. This is where Mamie is introduced; they met when Ike was in Texas on his first tour of duty at Fort Sam Houston. A new interactive display, “Becoming Ike and Mamie,” allows visitors to explore their pre-WWII career assignments.
They always thought of themselves as one entity, Snyder said, so the museum does too; new content better integrates Mamie throughout as well as giving her a separate gallery.
“Without Mamie, there would have been no General Eisenhower let alone President Eisenhower,” he said.
The chronological exhibits then flow into a war gallery that explores the lead-up to World War II and a significant section of D-Day artifacts, including the planning table, maps and a mulberry harbor model as well as the famous “in case of failure” note. It was Ike’s success in giving the order to invade German-occupied France on June 6, 1944, that set the stage for Europe’s liberation and propelled him to the presidency.
The final gallery is devoted to the Eisenhower presidency and is twice the space previously allotted. Rather than chronological, it is thematic.
“The first half of the presidential section is ‘Warrior for Peace,’ again using Ike’s own words, and the second half is ‘Promoting Prosperity,” Snyder said. “The first half is looking at the challenges he was facing globally – the threat of Communist expansion, the nuclear threat and the space race – and the second half is domestic challenges he faced, things like civil rights and the interstate highway system.”
In addition to videos and interactive displays, there are manuscripts, photographs, automobiles, fine art and other types of artifacts. The museum’s new cases provide flexible space so that staff can rotate items from the 70,000-item collection more often, Snyder said. The library and museum also houses 26 million pages of records and papers, 335,000 photographs and 145 miles of film. He estimates 2% to 5% of the holdings are on display at any one time.
There’s also a temporary gallery space and an area that is devoted to exploring the lasting legacy and relevancy of Ike’s presidency.
“We have so much good stuff that helps us tell the story,” Snyder said. “We want visitors to recognize these artifacts are rotating so they’ll want to return.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home
Address: 200 SE 4th St., Abilene
Hours: 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m. daily, beginning Aug. 1.
Admission: Adults, $10; seniors 62 and older and retired military and disabled, $7; students, $5. Active military members with ID and children 5 and younger are admitted free.