How to tell the story of one of the most contentious American figures of the 20th century?
From the native habitats of Georgia to the dystopian wilds of The Hunger Games, Thinkwell’s exhibit designs have gone to many vibrant places and told some amazing and unexpected stories over the years. But we were offered a new—and deeply relevant— arena to explore in 2013 when the Richard Nixon Foundation came to us with a challenge: to redesign the permanent exhibits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, which opened its new doors in October 2016. This task offered rich and exciting possibilities, but also posed these vital questions.
Even from the very start there was one thing we knew for sure: there wouldn’t be any hiding from the tough parts of the story. We needed to blow up the expectation that controversial topics like Watergate would be swept under the rug. Instead, we needed to bring them up at the very start, allowing the audience to see that this exhibit was aiming for a level of openness that can be difficult to achieve in many spaces—let alone a presidential library. The award-winning orientation film that guests can watch before entering the exhibits begins with Watergate and with Richard Nixon’s televised announcement that he will resign the presidency.
The next big hurdle Thinkwell faced was where to begin our story inside the exhibits. Richard Nixon was born in 1913, into an America that can feel almost unimaginably distant for the younger age demographic that the museum was hoping to attract. We wanted to start in a moment of action, a moment that would energize and connect with guests. Inspired by the dramatic tradition of in medias res, our exhibit begins in the middle of the story: amidst the turbulence and tumult and change of the 1960s, in a country that is deeply polarized and divided, when Richard Nixon is elected president in 1968.
With the starting point decided, the rest of the exhibit’s structure began to fall into place. We wanted to combine immersive spaces, powerful scenic vignettes, and bold and striking graphic imagery to shape spaces that felt alive and carried guests from moment to moment along their journey. Following Nixon’s first election, guests get to step into a fully explorable recreation of his Oval Office and then move into a series of galleries focused on the major issues, events, and ideas of Nixon’s presidency. These begin with a space dedicated to the war in Vietnam where a life-sized, gray scale vignette shows a pair of soldiers moving through the grass on the battlefield, juxtaposed against a graphic backdrop of photos of the protests at home on the wall beyond. In another standalone gallery that captures the scope and scale of Nixon’s world-changing trip to China, a pair of statues capture Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in the moment of their historic handshake, set against a large-scale graphic and scenic backdrop of Air Force One at the Chinese airfield. A frozen moment in time from a celebratory balloon drop scored with the catchy election anthem of “Nixon Now” provides the environment for another exhibit on Nixon’s landslide reelection victory in 1972, a sharp contrast to the Watergate exhibit that immediately follows.
It was here that the combination of the topic and the space provided a unique opportunity for Thinkwell to change the way we traditionally experience stories in museums. We decided to give our exhibit a flash-back—the first one to ever be used in a museum exhibit, as far as we know. Having reached Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, the exhibit narrative was in a place that called for reflection—how did Nixon get here? At the same time, we had a location at the far end of our exhibit space where windows overlooked the little house where Nixon had been born. With a little media and design magic, guests are able to transition back in time, following the Nixons as they flew back to California after the resignation and arriving in California not in 1974, but in 1913. A more subtle transition occurs here as well, shifting the perspective that the exhibit is following from the impersonal and external viewpoint of the outside world to a more personal, inward-looking sequence. This flashback concludes with an immersive and theatrical- ized version of the Lincoln Sitting Room, where guests are brought back to the “present” moment immediately following Nixon’s resignation.
Redesigning the permanent exhibits at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library gave Thinkwell an incredible opportunity to be a part of capturing a fascinating and important piece of history. More than that, it asked us to think in new ways about the stories we tell ourselves every day — stories about politics, about citizenship, about democracy, about America. In a time in which our political landscape has become turbulent and challenging, in which mass protests once again fill the streets of cities across the nation, taking on the story of Richard Nixon and his approach to the challenges of his time never did bring us all of the answers to the questions we started with. But it helped us begin to shape some of the questions that we will need to consider as we look to the future.