While I was in Southern California to visit Disneyland, I took advantage of a friend’s offer to drive out to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The immediate rationale for the trip was to see the limited engagement exhibit, Treasures of the Walt Disney archives. But the library was so interesting in its own right that I didn’t want to just tack on a few sentences about the library to my post on the Disney exhibit; I felt that it deserved a dedicated post.
This is the first time I’ve visited any Presidential library, so comparisons aren’t possible. It was laid out much as I would have expected — the overall organization is chronological, starting with Reagan’s youth and with the final gallery containing items related to Reagan’s funeral.
The earlier exhibits — covering things like Reagan’s childhood home or high school and collegiate athletics — were well done but, as something of a political junkie, not as interesting to me as the sections starting where Reagan became Governor of California. There was some coverage of Reagan’s acting career, but it was not extensive, which suited me fine as it meant getting to the interesting stuff that much sooner.
After covering the governorship, we then move on to the Presidential Campaign for the 1980 election.
There are a number of interactive exhibits throughout the gallery. Here I am reading one of Reagan’s speeches off the teleprompter.
Several of the exhibits were extremely moving; one of these was the gallery covering the attempted assassination early in Reagan’s first term. Items from that day were on display, most notably the suit jacket that Reagan had worn with the bullet hole clearly visible. News footage from the day plays on TV screens along with a filmed recreation of the first few minutes after his arrival at the hospital.
From this somber gallery we then proceed to one of the signature exhibits of the library — a full size replica of the Oval Office. The office is recreated just as it was during the Reagan administration. Some of the items, such as the Resolute desk, are reproductions, while others, like the Frederic Remington sculpture, are the actual furnishings from the office.
After the Oval Office we see more exhibits covering the Reagan White House, and then proceed into a cavernous display space for what is unquestionably the most impressive artifact of the library — Air Force One, Boeing 707 #27000. This aircraft flew all U.S presidents from Nixon through Clinton. and is beautifully presented. It is in front of a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass overlooking the scenic valley — on most days this would probably be a beautiful backdrop (frontdrop?) to the aircraft. On this particular day we were completely fogged in so the effect was, I suppose, that of flying through a cloud bank.
You can board Air Force One and see it much as it appeared during the time it was in service. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the plane, so this shot of me standing in the doorway is as far as I can take you along.
Inside the space is incredibly spacious compared to any commercial airliner, but at the same time appears small and cramped compared to what we’ve seen portrayed as the interior space of the current generation Air Force One, the much larger 747s. We get to see working areas for the President and high-level staff, the communication and command center (including the nuclear code ‘football’), and seating for press and not-quite-as-high-level staff. The air circulation for the aircraft is in use (rather than just hooking it up to external environmental systems) which creates a bit of vibration and hum which helps, along with the slightly inclined attitude of the plane (2%), to create the illusion that the aircraft is in flight.
After exiting Air Force One, the rest of the exhibit space downstairs includes a Marine One helicopter and a motorcade limousine.
After leaving this impressive space we retrace our steps back to the main museum building and continue with more exhibits. All too soon we are coming to the end of the story with two moving exhibits. First the handwritten farewell letter that Reagan wrote after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, marking the end of his life as a public figure. And then a selection of items from the President’s funeral.
After the last exhibit has been lingered over, we head outside to make our way to the grave site. Along the way we pass a large section of the Berlin “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this” Wall. And then we make our final stop to pay respects at the grave site.
This was a place I truly enjoyed visiting, and being of an age that I remember the events of the Reagan administration well, it was very moving to go back and revisit the highs and lows of that period in our nation’s history. Highly recommended.