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Obama at ceremonial Obama Center groundbreaking Tuesday: At museum, artifacts to tell the Obama story

The Obama Museum is collecting artifacts to illustrate Barack and Michelle Obama’s life before, during and after their eight years in the White House.

Among the artifacts to be in the Obama Museum: The “extreme marshmallow cannon,” from the 2012 White House Science Fair. President Obama is pictured with cannon creator Joey Hudy.
Among the artifacts to be in the Obama Museum: The “extreme marshmallow cannon,” from the 2012 White House Science Fair. President Obama is pictured with cannon creator Joey Hudy.
AFP via Getty Images file photo

WASHINGTON — The 1960 high school yearbook of Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama. A 1997 newsletter from then-state senator Obama. And a Michelle Obama business card from her stint at Chicago’s Sidley & Austin law firm.

These are among the artifacts the Obama Presidential Museum on Chicago’s South Side will display in its inaugural collection when the doors open about four years from now.

Since July 2017, Obama museum director Louise Bernard has been figuring out how to tell the stories of Barack and Michelle Obama — before, during and after their eight years in the White House — in the context of the civil rights and related history leading to the election of the nation’s first Black president in 2008.

The former first couple will preside over the ceremonial groundbreaking of their Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday afternoon in historic Jackson Park, near where Michelle Obama was raised and the president launched his political career.

The squat museum tower, intended to become a South Side landmark, is one of four buildings on the 19.3 acre campus.

Though there is still federal litigation pending opposing construction in Jackson Park — there is a Nov. 30 hearing — construction for the complex started in August.

The museum will highlight, according to the Obama Foundation, the “individuals, movements and places, including aspects of Chicago’s history, that shaped President and Mrs. Obama’s stories and early lives.”

There are an abundance of Obama artifacts available for display in the museum, to be rotated in through the decades beyond our lifetimes.

Through the years, Bernard has been acquiring and preserving artifacts for exhibits — visiting Iowa at one point to see what people saved from his 2008 campaign.

On Monday night, Obama, speaking virtually to his “alumni group” — folks who worked in his campaigns and administration — said an entire section in the museum will be devoted to the Iowa caucus.

Obama put himself on the path to the presidency by winning Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential vote — something far from a given when his staff landed in the Hawkeye state in 2007.

The museum will have a replica of Obama’s Oval Office — common in presidential museums, and, as Obama said, “Michelle’s gowns.”

“…What we’re going to be doing is setting up a series of exhibits, showing the degree to which we were just a continuation of a thread, a running thread in American history of people, ordinary folks from the bottom up, expanding the definition of ‘We the People,’” Obama said.

There will not be an official Obama Presidential Library in the Obama Center. Obama wanted to be free of the restrictive and costly rules imposed by the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA runs the Obama Library from northwest suburban Hoffman Estates and is responsible for preserving more than 35,000 objects – from jackets, to gifts from foreign leaders to one of the Cross pens used to sign the Obama care health care law — accumulated between Jan. 20, 2009 and Jan. 20, 2017.

Bernard told me in an interview, “We’ll be borrowing obviously in a collaborative relationship with NARA.”

While NARA’s focus is mainly the Obama White House years, Bernard said she wants to knit together “aspects of the story that NARA isn’t able to tell,” including “the formative history that leads to that watershed moment in 2008.”

Bernard also is tackling how to tell the story of the Obama post presidency — and the “legacy” connected to his work. Bernard said some items for exhibits have been purchased, “particularly first edition books, books that were meaningful or inspiring to the president, or illustrate a particular moment,” citing Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright.

Among the artifacts Bernard has collected for the inaugural displays:

· Items from the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech.

· Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album, “Talking Book,” Michelle Obama’s first album, given to her by her grandfather, nicknamed “South Side.”

· Obama got a big kick at the 2012 White House Science Fair when he tested out an orange and white “extreme marshmallow cannon” designed by a 14-year-old, Joey Hudy. The “cannon” will be part of an exhibit.

· Obama for Senate 2004 campaign memorabilia.

· The White House vegetable garden, an outgrowth of the first lady’s signature healthy eating project led to a 2009 appearance on Sesame Street, where she planted a garden with Elmo and Big Bird. The Sesame Street Foundation donated the original puppets to the museum.

· The Supreme Court, in Obergefell v Hodges, legalized same sex marriage when Obama was president. James Obergefell, who brought the case, who wed John Arthur, donated their marriage certificate.

A copy of the November 1990 Harvard Law Review, the first published with Obama as the law review president. He was the first Black person to hold the job.