“We’re still experiencing what we call ‘the Burns Bump,’” says Paul Sparrow, newly appointed director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. That bump, he explains, is an increase in attendance, driven in part by the Ken Burns documentary series about the Roosevelts broadcast not too long ago on PBS.
Sparrow replaces retired director Lynn Bassanese, who oversaw the three-year, $35 million renovation of the FDR site completed in 2013 that included $6 million worth of new exhibits. “My predecessor overcame enormous logistical obstacles in doing that,” says Sparrow. “They had to move all of the archives out of the building and store them, increase security and do all of the exhibit upgrading. And they did a fantastic job. The place is in great shape.”
A community meet-and-greet with new FDR Library director Paul Sparrow will be held on Wednesday, September 30 in the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center at the FDR site. The event will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. in the visitor center lobby, followed by brief remarks at 6:30 p.m. Afterward, attendees are invited to view the Library’s exhibits free of charge until 9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
The FDR Presidential Library, designed by Franklin Roosevelt himself, was completed in 1941: the first such archive of presidential artifacts to have been created. Every president since FDR has followed his example and established a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration to preserve and make accessible to the American people the records of their presidencies.
With June 2016 being the 75th anniversary of the opening of the FDR Library, a series of events celebrating that milestone are in the works. “We’ll be doing a range of different kinds of programs,” says Sparrow, “from temporary exhibits and public programming to events specifically recognizing the anniversary. None of the plans are finalized yet, but there’s going to be a lot of activity around that next June.”
And an art component is planned as a part of that. “We’ve been looking at the art collection here, and there are some projects that we’re working on. It’s one of the important aspects of the Roosevelt legacy: how much he supported the arts through the WPA [Works Progress Administration] and other things. We want to connect with the local arts community and are looking at various ways we can do that.”
Sparrow was formerly a senior executive with the Newseum, instrumental in the design and construction of the seven-level, 250,000-square-foot interactive museum in Washington, DC. He oversaw all Newseum video production and interactive exhibits, developed an award-winning website, was an early adopter of social media, managed the Education and Programs Department and launched the Newseum’s Digital Classroom.
He was also a consultant for the National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center and for Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.
Prior to his work at the Newseum, Sparrow was an Emmy Award-winning television producer, journalist and filmmaker who produced primetime news and documentary programming for the Discovery Channel, TLC and Fox. He began his career as a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco. Sparrow has a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College and an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
After 15 years of living in Washington, DC, this is Sparrow’s first time living in the Hudson Valley, although as a native of Long Island he’s familiar with New York and his wife is from Westchester. “This is sort of like coming home for her,” he says. “And this area is so beautiful. We’re both very outdoorsy sorts of people and there’s so much to do here. We rode our bikes out across the Walkway over the Hudson the other day, and what a spectacular project that is: turning urban blight into this fantastic tourism destination. I’m so impressed with it; it’s brilliant.”
While he makes no claim to be a historian or librarian, Sparrow says that he has always been “a huge amateur history buff.” He has done several documentary projects over the years involving the Roosevelts, he adds, and considers himself to have been a sort of “client” of the National Archives. “As a documentary filmmaker, you’re constantly turning to them for old footage and information. The archives are such an extraordinary resource – presidential libraries in particular. They’re national treasures.”
Roosevelt had such vision, Sparrow says, realizing that the records of his presidency didn’t belong to him, but to the American public. “And he was the first president to understand that. Presidential libraries are really extraordinary repositories of history, and as time goes on and we process all these documents, and make them available to researchers and historians and the general public, it provides great insight into how our government really works. And I think that’s very, very important in a democracy.”
Meet-and-greet with Paul Sparrow, Wednesday, September 30, 6 p.m., free, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum, 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park; (800) 337-8474, (845) 486-7770, https://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu.