WASHINGTON – Though the Obama Presidential Center museum won’t be open for years, work on exhibits has started, with museum director Louise Bernard putting out the call on Saturday for people to contribute artifacts and do-it-yourself “oral histories” from the 2008 campaign.
For the past 10 years, I have kept an Obama ‘08 campaign Christmas tree ornament under a bed, untouched, in its original box. It is stamped with the now-famous “O” logo.
I found it in late 2007 in Iowa, left behind when I checked out a room in a hotel where big Barack Obama donors had just gotten a briefing.
Souvenirs – retrieved from attics, basements, garages, under beds – over time are better understood as important artifacts that make the past come alive.
Bernard is soliciting the objects – and the first-person testimonies – to help tell the stories of the extraordinary 2008 campaign – a movement, in many ways – that vaulted Obama from being a freshman Illinois senator to the White House in the span of just a few years.
“We are really interested in the broader idea of crowdsourcing,” Bernard told me on Friday.
“Crowdsourcing peoples’ stories, doing real broad outreach for artifacts, so we can think about how we can role out future calls for submissions,” she said.
(see below for full Bernard message sent Saturday morning)
The proposed Obama Presidential Center complex in Jackson Park — federal reviews and city approvals are still in the works — will be anchored by a signature tower which will contain the museum.
Former President Barack Obama wants his museum to tell more than his story.
As Bernard said in a video produced in connection with the history project, the aim is to “build a museum that will be a testament to the power of what ordinary people can do together.”
The call for submissions comes on Obama’s 57th birthday.
Obama won the 2008 Iowa first-in-the-nation kickoff vote, which put him on the path to the Democratic nomination. What Bernard called the Iowa “experience” will be in one of the first galleries people will see.
“Anyone who was alive during the 2008 campaign has a story to tell,” the foundation said on the website, which includes the DIY instructions for audio or video oral histories.
“Ask them to go through their own emails, photos or journals from 2008 in order to jog their memory.”
There are also some suggested questions, from the specific (Where were you election night 2008?) to the very general (“When did you first believe Obama’s election was possible?”).
According to the Oral History Association: “Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”
Since some of the submissions could end up in a museum exhibit, I asked Bernard about plans to check out the material to see if it passes muster with historians.
Bernard, an academic as well as a museum professional — she holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and American Studies from Yale University – said the submissions will be “thoroughly reviewed and vetted.”
“The most important thing is to give people a platform to share their voice and to really share what was meaningful to them,” she said.
I can’t imagine an oral history of the Iowa chapter of the Obama campaign without hearing from the Iowa campaign team — Paul Tewes, Steve Hildebrand, Mike Blake, Josh Earnest or Tommy Vietor, to name a few.
As time goes by, key figures in the Obama presidency – cabinet members, top advisors, etc., will likely be asked to submit to formal oral histories. But that’s for later. The 2008 campaign comes first.
Said Bernard: “There is a broad historical understanding of the campaign within the (Obama) Foundation, so we know who we will be reaching out to beyond the broad calls to everyday people to submit their stories and memories.”
Below, statement from Louise Bernard released Saturday morning….
My name is Louise Bernard, and I’m the Director of the Museum of the Obama Presidential Center.
It’s my job to help tell the story of the Obama presidency.
Today is President Obama’s birthday. And I’m not going to ask you to sign a card, or pass along well-wishes for his day. I’m asking you to do something that I think might mean even more to him.
I’m asking you to capture your memories from President Obama’s election in 2008: what you saw, what you heard, who you called, the moments that were meaningful. We’ll take your photos, your journal entries, and especially audio files of your recollections. We’re also interested in keepsakes or artifacts you think would be valuable additions to the museum—send us a photo, tell us about them, and someone from our team may get in touch with you to learn more.
So many people made this groundbreaking presidency possible. Whether you caucused in Iowa or voted in 2008 for the first time, whether you knocked on doors in Florida or celebrated in Grant Park, or whether you watched along with millions of people around the world on election night, your memories will help build a collective memoir.
This archive of memories, both physical and digital, will allow future generations to learn about this historic election through the words of those who lived it.
Ten years ago, you helped make history. Now, we need you to help write it.