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Obama Foundation names museum director after long search

Louise Bernard, named Wednesday as director of the Obama presidential museum. | Obama Foundation photo

WASHINGTON — After a long search to fill a key position, the Obama Foundation on Wednesday named a director for the Obama Presidential Center museum, Louise Bernard, whose exhibition experience includes work on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The job had been advertised since at least January, with the job description stating the ideal candidate for the position will be “an inspiring yet pragmatic museum professional, fundraiser and manager” who will “know the Obamas’ story and administration thoroughly.”

Bernard, who will start on July 1, will play a crucial role in helping former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle firm up and design the programming “narrative” of the museum, a project that has been in the works for months.

At present, Bernard is the director of exhibitions at the The New York Public Library, a position she has held since January 2017.

Before that, she was part of a team developing the exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. Previously, she was curator of prose and drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.

“I’m honored to work alongside such a talented team at the Obama Foundation, and to have the opportunity to help guide and shape a museum that is a truly innovative social and cultural institution,” Bernard said in a statement.

“I look forward in bringing President and Mrs. Obama’s remarkable story to the broadest possible audience, and to highlighting the crucial role of civic engagement in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to local South Side residents, and to people across the country and around the world.”

The Obama museum director, according to the job description issued by the New York search firm retained by the Foundation, Phillips Oppenheim, will oversee exhibits and public programming “designed to capture the interest” of audiences “on site and online regionally, nationally and internationally, while providing innovative connections with the vibrant local community and external partners.”

The Obama Center, to be constructed in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, will include a museum, library, forum and office space for the foundation. Plans call for its virtual offerings through its website to be as robust as those on-site.

As the manager of the Obama museum online and in Chicago, the director, according to the job description, handles audience development, marketing as well as taking on substantial fundraising duties.

The director, according to the job description should have a track record in “cultivating and soliciting gifts from individuals; capital and endowment campaign experience is a plus.”

The early estimates for Obama Center put the price at $675 million for start-up construction, programming, staff and other operating expenses from 2015 to 2021. It is scheduled to open in 2022, but the foundation is not waiting for a building; last week, Obama was in Berlin for his foundation’s first international programming.

Bernard holds a Ph.D. in African-American studies and American studies from Yale. She has master’s in theater history and English literature from Indiana University.

“One of the key aspects of the Obama Presidential Center is a museum that does not just tell the story of the Obama Administration, but inspires individuals and communities to take on our biggest challenges. We are excited for Louise to join our team and help us develop a museum that is active and engaging,” David Simas, chief executive officer of the Obama Foundation, said in a statement. “Louise’s impeccable credentials and passion for her work will make her a valuable member of the Obama Foundation team.”