Hyde Park unveils renovated FDR Museum

The full-scale renovation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum began in May 2010 and opened on June 30 of this year. With the exception of two wings added in 1972 in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt, it is the first renovation of the Roosevelt Library since it was opened to the public on June 30, 1941. (FDR Presidential Library)

If you’re a local resident who gets visitors from out of town, you have probably at some point taken them to the Roosevelt Home and Museum in Hyde Park. If you actually live in Hyde Park, these visits happen every time you get visitors from out of town: A trip to Roosevelt’s is as impossible to resist a trip to the local drive-in or Dairy Queen. So locals who’ve been through the old FDR Museum perhaps one time past the point of optimal appreciation will be delighted, as I was, by the new FDR Museum, now officially open to the public.

It’s a total reno from stem to stern; only the best and brightest of the time-honored original museum can be seen in this dazzling upgrade designed by Gallagher and Associates. The old museum had an open layout that resulted in a lot of wandering around for new visitors and nonsequential exhibit-viewing; the new one is solidly linear, taking one step-by-step through the intertwined stories of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt from the early days of their Hudson Valley gentry lives through their time at the center of a world at war.

The old museum worked off the assumption that its visitors knew who the Roosevelts were and was more of a Hall of Fame-style collection of photos and artifacts. But as the population ages and those who were actually alive and conscious during the Depression and World War II proceed into eternity, that assumption is not made by the new museum. It tells the story rudimentarily enough so that someone with little or no idea who the Roosevelts were can be engaged and follow along; but it doesn’t oversimplify.

Nor does it sugarcoat. Not everyone back then (or today, for that matter) loved FDR, and he didn’t succeed at everything he tried: The “Roosevelt recession” of the mid-1930s gets its due, as do the scandals surrounding his decision to break precedent by running for a third term in 1940. The delicate diplomatic and political dance of trying to help Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor is handled with objectivity; so is the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the controversy surrounding FDR’s actions (or inactions) in the face of mounting evidence of the Holocaust are explored, too. Balance was the goal, not hagiography.

Visually, it’s stunning, right up there in quality with the World War II Museum in New Orleans in terms of up-to-date presentation of historical material. Overall, the style is a modern reworking of period graphics (think of the look of Turner Classic Movies’ promos) hearkening back to the elegance and simplicity of 1930s and ’40s design. Lighting is used to underline points made in the exhibits; the dimly lit Depression wing opens up into the bright room of FDR taking office in 1933 and his “100 Days” of sweeping reform.

Layout plays a role, too. One rounds a corner from the World War II part to a startlingly huge blowup of a newspaper front page announcing the president’s death; museum director Lynn Bassanese says that was a way of communicating the shock of FDR’s passing in 1945, just months before the ending of the war that took so much of his energy and ultimately his life.

Eleanor, herself a groundbreaking figure in America’s social history and one of the strongest progressive voices that this country has ever known, gets a whole wing devoted to her post-First Lady career as author, activist and co-architect of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

You want interactives? Video? At several points along the halls there are ten screens for “Confront the Issues,” a touchscreen-based program that helps visitors get deep into the problems that beset Roosevelt during his 12 years in office. Two mini-theaters show short documentaries. New galleries, set in reproductions of a period kitchen and living room, let people hear a few of Roosevelt’s famed “Fireside Chat” radio talks, and letters written in response.

Bassanese says that all of the 3-D items on display – including intimate objects like FDR’s campaign hat and pince-nez and the Roosevelt family Bible dating back to 1686 – are all authentic, but the documents (the FDR Presidential Library has occupied the same Roosevelt-designed building since both were opened in 1945) are painstaking facsimiles. The real ones are too delicate to be exposed to light on a constant basis, Bassanese explains.

There are a lot of highlights; my favorite was the Map Room, a reproduction of Roosevelt’s secret chamber in the White House from which he ran the war. Projections track the course of Allied setbacks and ultimate victory; interactive tables offer more animations, videos and trivia quizzes. In the room, decked out with gorgeous National Geographic maps from the war years, you can still see FDR’s own pencil marks on the giant globe that he used to plot the Axis’ defeat.

Some of the best stuff from the old museum is still there: FDR’s hand-controlled ’36 Ford, and the papier-mâché sphinx-head that designed as a prop for the fun-jabbing Gridiron Club dinner of 1940. Brought back out are some samples from Franklin’s dazzling collection of boat models, furniture from Val-Kill and the various presents that the Roosevelts received from world leaders.

It took three years, $35 million in public money and another $6 million in private funds raised by the Roosevelt Institute to fix up the archives and museum. It was time and money well-spent on a world-class display telling the story of a local couple who were, during the most turbulent of times, the ultimate power couple.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year’s, November-March, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., April-October, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Home & Museum $14, Museum $7; 15 & under free, 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park; (800) FDR-VISIT, (800) 337-8474.

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