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Presidential Libraries as Performance

Presidential Libraries as Performance

Curating American Character from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush

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Jodi Kanter


E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
17 illustrations

Theater in the Americas


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About the Book

How do the funding, setting architecture, and exhibition of a presidential library shape our understanding of the president’s character? And how do diverse performances of the presidency create radically different opportunities for the practice of American citizenship? In Presidential Libraries as Performance: Curating American Character from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, Jodi Kanter analyzes presidential libraries as performances that encourage visitors to think in particular ways about executive leadership and about their own roles in public life.

Kanter considers the moments in the presidents’ lives the museums choose to interpret, and not to interpret, and how the libraries approach common subjects in the presidential museum narrative—the presidents’ early years in relation to cultural ideals, the libraries’ representations of presidential failures, personal and political, and the question of presidential legacy. Identifying the limited number of strategies the libraries currently use to represent the diversity of the American experience and American character, Kanter offers concrete suggestions for reinventing and reshaping the practices of museum professionals and visitors within the walls of these institutions.

Presidential museums can tell us important things about the relationships between performance and politics, entertainment and history, and leaders and the people they lead. Kanter demonstrates how the presidential libraries generate normative narratives about individual presidents, historical events, and what it means to be an American.


Jodi Kanter is an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the George Washington University. She is the author of Performing Loss: Rebuilding Community through Theater and Writing.


“Although scholars lament that presidential libraries do not present full and unbiased information, Jodi Kanter offers a different way to understand the utility of these sources of knowledge about our chief executives. Viewed through the lens of performance, the libraries tell us much about ourselves and how we understand our shared history. A very engaging read and creative analysis of a much-neglected topic of study.”—Mark J. Rozell, author of Executive Privilege: Presidential Power, Secrecy, and Accountability
“In looking at American presidential libraries through the lens of performance, Jodi Kanter makes a strong case for how they reflect, shape, and interrogate normative narratives about the presidency, individual presidents and their legacies, and that elusive chimera ‘American character.’”—Tim Raphael, author of The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance
“Jodi Kanter’s smart, incisive book shows the power of museums to affect visitors’ sense of identity and their place in history. Without cynicism, she challenges prevailing presentations of presidential narratives. Her study of presidential libraries illuminates the larger discussions of truth, identity, and representation happening across all types of museums.”—Catherine Hughes, founding executive director, International Museum Theatre Alliance

"Presidential Libraries as Performance by Jodi Kanter demonstrates the myriad ways these museums define and influence cultural identity and suggests how they can better mirror the nuanced realities of the Oval Office, its place in a period's unique social and political climate, and the complexities of American character."--Teresa Palomo Acosta, Austin, Texas