Road Trip Through History: The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Recently My Own True Love and I took a week-long road trip that looped down the Mississippi, across to Little Rock, through northwest Arkansas, up to Kansas City and back to Chicago.  For much of the trip, historical sightseeing was out of the question. All we could do was make lists of sites and museums that we’d like to see next time.  After all, we had miles to travel, people to see, meetings to attend, a blogging workshop to teach. *  When we reached Kansas City, our time was our own and we were ready to be history nerds.  Our first stop was the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. (Okay, it’s in Independence, Missouri, but the two cities have run together into an amorphous urban blob.)

The library tells Truman’s story well in a variety of formats: a 45 minute documentary of Truman’s life using vintage black and white footage and stills, a family friendly interactive display about his life from childhood through retirement, an excellent and even-handed display setting his often controversial presidency in historical context***, and a charming display of his letters to Bess. (Not every presidential library has a lifelong love story at its heart.)

In addition to Truman the president, we were introduced to

• Truman the near-sighted patriot who memorized the eye chart so he could enlist in World War I
• Truman the candidate of the Prendergast political machine who earned a reputation for honesty building roads in his home county
• Truman the piano student
• Truman the failed businessman

Excellent though the permanent exhibits are, I was particularly taken by a special exhibit on Truman and American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, who painted the allegorical mural in the museum lobby: Independence and the Opening of the West. Benton is a long time favorite of mine; Truman was less sure he liked the Missouri painter’s work. (He described the main figure in Benton’s The Kentuckian as a “long-necked monstrosity.”) The exhibit chronicles the parallel lives of president and painter, born five years and fifty miles apart, and the unlikely path that led to their friendship and collaboration. Benton and Truman: Legends of the Missouri Border will be on display through October 14. If you’re in the area****, make sure you see it.

And while you’re there, pick up a Truman bobble-head doll and a bag of Republican Poop. I resisted and I’m still regretting it.

* We did spend a day at Crystal Bridges, the fabulous art museum in Bentonville Arkansas. Not exactly historical**, but well worth the visit.
** Though there was a fascinating eighteenth century portrait of Lafayette, who apparently looked a lot like a young Jack Benny.
*** His presidency included the decision to drop the atomic bomb, post-war housing shortages, firing the popular General Douglas McArthur****, the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the beginnings of the Cold War, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts.
**** You’ve got to love a man who tells Time magazine “I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President…I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” Give ’em hell, Harry.
*****My Own True Love and I define “in the area” pretty loosely. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, are not exactly next door to each other.

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