Dec 17, 2012

A Redesigned LBJ Library Gears Up for the Digital Generation

Construction crews complete renovations to the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum before its reopening on Dec. 22. Photo by Laura Gerson.


By Kelli Ainsworth
For Reporting Texas

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law landmark legislation addressing some of the most fiercely debated issues of the 1960s, from voting rights and health care to education and immigration. But how do you make the accomplishments of this towering figure of 20th century American politics relevant to the digital denizens of the 21st?

The answer will go on public display at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum on Dec. 22, when the facility reopens after a yearlong, $12 million renovation. All but three of its permanent exhibits were rebuilt to appeal to generations not yet born when Johnson occupied the White House from 1963 to 1969.

The emphasis of the redesign is interactivity and engagement. An exhibit called “Journey of a Bill” follows passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prevents discriminatory practices at polling places. Audio and visual elements immerse visitors in the cultural and social climate of the United States as the bill makes its way through Congress. The exhibit includes music of the time, lets visitors know what movies and television shows were popular and details what people were eating.

Anne Wheeler, the museum’s director of communication, said the redesign aims to show visitors how pop culture, news and politics are “all connected.”

“It’s not just, this is how you pass a bill,” Wheeler said. “It’s like, here’s this major bill that was passed … and here are all the obstacles and what the political climate was.”

The library, located on federal land adjacent to the University of Texas and administered through the National Archives and Records Administration, opened in 1971. It was the first of three presidential libraries in Texas, preceding the George H.W. Bush Library in College Station and the George W. Bush Library in Dallas. The LBJ museum hasn’t had a redesign in almost 30 years.

“The timing is perfect because several presidential libraries had these renovations to their permanent exhibits, and it was … our turn to have one,” said Betty Sue Flowers, the library’s former director.

Proponents of the redesign say Johnson’s legacy remains relevant. Many of the issues Johnson struggled to confront either remain hot topics nationally, like health care, voting rights and immigration, or are likely to spice up the 2013 Texas Legislative session, like education funding.

Wheeler said museum officials looked to use the renovation to establish a sense of historical context for issues that have their roots in Johnson’s presidency. Today’s millennial generation has come of age when so much instant, flashy, interactive information is online, said Wheeler, that its attention isn’t likely to be held by displays behind glass with accompanying information plaques.

Instead, the redesigned library will convey information through handheld guides with touch screens and downloadable phone apps. The guide and the app will let users access photos, video and audio that enhance the exhibits. The app, including a Spanish version, will also allow visitors to plan their tour of the museum.

“We think it’s important for people, particularly younger people, to come here and understand what it was like in the 1960s, when you didn’t have Medicare,” Wheeler said. “If you’re going to vote on something and debate something, you kind of need to know … its origin.”

In signing the Social Security Act in 1965, Johnson brought into being both Medicare and Medicaid, a move that was as controversial then as President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2010. Two pieces of civil rights legislation were passed during Johnson’s presidency: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The former did away with Jim Crow segregation in the South, integrating public spaces. The Voting Rights Act prevented polling practices that had disenfranchised black voters, echoes of which were heard recently in the hotly debated issue of moves among the states, including Texas, to legislate more stringent voter identification requirements.

One new exhibit will address decision points during the Vietnam War. Visitors will hear archival recordings of Johnson talking on the telephone with his advisers, see excerpts of briefing papers that crossed his desk and make a policy decision themselves before learning what Johnson did.

Neither old nor new library incarnations have skirted the Johnson administration’s controversial policies in escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Wheeler said the library’s goal isn’t to beatify Johnson or avoid the failures of his presidency, but to allow museum-goers to make up their own minds about Johnson and his presidency.

Not everything will have changed. The library will still house a replica of the Oval Office as it looked when LBJ occupied it. Four of its 10 floors will continue to house an archive of 45 million pages of documents, 1 million feet of film footage and more than half a million photographs.

The library’s reopening coincides with the centennial of the birth of LBJ’s wife and first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. The library is funded through the National Archives and Records Administration as well as the nonprofit LBJ Foundation and private donations. Prominent Texans Ann Butler—the namesake of the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake and wife of former Austin Mayor Roy Butler —and former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby each donated $1 million toward the renovation.

The LBJ Library has been the only one of the 13 presidential libraries administered by the archives administration that hasn’t charged admission. That will change when the library reopens. The LBJ Foundation Board decided admission fees are necessary to sustain the library’s operations. Admission will be $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for children 13 to 17. Admission will remain free for University of Texas students and employees, children under 12, student groups and active military. The library will offer free admission on national holidays, LBJ’s birthday and Austin Museum Day.