First look: Obama Presidential Center museum to contain Oval Office replica

SHARE First look: Obama Presidential Center museum to contain Oval Office replica

Obama Presidential Center Museum Director Louise Bernard talks about museum in the center on January 12, 2018. (Marcus DiPaola/Chicago Sun-Times)

WASHINGTON –The Obama Presidential Center museum will include a replica of former President Barack Obama’s Oval Office, museum director Louise Bernard told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We imagine that will be a real draw for people and for young people as well, to kind of see themselves in that space,” Bernard said in an interview offering the first details of what will be in the museum.

The space would include a recreation of the historic Resolute desk Obama used, so visitors can “see the kinds of furnishings that President Obama had. “

Current plans include the use of augmented virtual reality technology to enhance the experience of viewing the Obama Oval Office exhibit.

The museum will take up about half of the signature building on the future Obama Center campus in Jackson Park, a 165,000 square-foot tower to rise 235 feet with eight stories plus several mezzanine levels.

The Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday will consider the applications from the Obama Foundation and city for zoning and other approvals.

Years before the museum will open and while architects are still working on the building design plans, Bernard has the job of figuring out for future generations to come the exhibits and the artifacts telling the Obama story.

Obama and former first lady Michelle, Obama Foundation officials have said, want their museum to deal with more than the eight years they lived in the White House.

The first level will be “the starting point of the narrative that made the President Obama story possible, “ Bernard said, to get him back not only to his early years, but “the moments, milestones in U.S. history that would lead to the election of the first African-American president.”

That will include, Bernard said, “all the key figures in Chicago, known and lesser known,” who set the stage for Obama coming to Chicago as a community organizer, putting him on the path to the presidency.

“People may have heard of Harold Washington, but there are always other people who are behind,” she said, referring to the South Sider who was Chicago’s first African-American mayor, winning City Hall in 1983, re-elected in 1987. Washington died on Nov. 25, 1987.

The second level will look at Obama’s two terms “and then a level that will be dedicated to what we are calling ‘life in the White House.”

Bernard said that third floor will deal with “aspects of life in the West and East wings; the first African-American family in the White House and really thinking also about the people behind the scenes at the White House who made this place run.”

Oval Office replicas, with the distinctive interiors of each president, are in the presidential museums of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, William Clinton and George W. Bush.

Obama’s Oval Office, to be on the fourth floor of his museum, will be “a space in which we imagine we could incorporate augmented virtual reality” and transport people into the life of the Oval Office, Bernard said.

The artifacts of the Obama presidency likely to be displayed, Bernard said, include his Nobel Peace Prize medal; a sampling from the 10 letters a day from the “real people” Obama read, plus memorabilia from his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, both headquartered in Chicago.

Mrs. Obama will also be featured in the museum, from her initiatives to her fashion.

“The first lady’s dresses, of course, are difficult to beat in terms of not only what they say about her style and that sense of dignity and composure, but the role that they play in what we might call sartorial diplomacy and her ability to reach people through clothing and everything that signifies, and in the broader issue of her support of young people and young people of color in the fashion industry.

“There’s something very meaningful in terms of what she wore, when and why,” Bernard said.

President Donald Trump is now using the Resolute desk, a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes from Queen Victoria in 1880 and used by a series of presidents.

Groundbreaking may take place at the end of this year. The aim is to open in 2021. At some point there will have to be decisions made about how to portray in the museum major parts of Obama’s legacy Trump is intent on dismantling – the Iran nuclear deal, work on climate change, opening up Cuba, providing protections to Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as youths illegally through no fault of their own.

For many in Chicago, Obama’s museum will encapsulate their living memories, Bernard said: “And for some people, and increasingly over time and for younger generations, we will be teaching them afresh about this this particular very recent history.”

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