When I entered the American Presidency exhibit, my eyes were immediately drawn to the bright blue and yellow walls, bold signs and large wagon in the middle of the room. There were large, white columns that gave the impression of power, authority and masculinity. In order to see an indication of the First Ladies exhibit, I had to turn around and look back towards the entrance. There were heavily airbrushed photos of five different first ladies against a gray wall and a poorly indicated entrance to the full exhibit on the left. Before walking into the First Ladies area, I could already see that the lighting was much more dim than that in the Presidency section. The only thing visible from outside of the entrance was a large glass case full of dresses. My first impression of the two exhibits was that they looked and felt very different. The American Presidency caught the eye, was much larger, included more information and content, and seemed more official. The First Ladies was a side note: drab colors, dim lighting, subtler signs, with an extremely narrow focus on the femininity of the position of first lady.
The presentation of content in the American Presidency was completely opposite of the presentation in the First Ladies. The American Presidency exhibit was more interactive, including videos and a podium where people could select a famous presidential speech and “pretend to be president”. The main room of the exhibit was organized by the responsibilities of the presidency. Each display went into depth and included examples from different presidents. The signs and descriptions displayed were bold, eye-catching and rigid (square, geometric accents). Overall, the entire exhibit felt masculine and important.
The First Ladies exhibit, on the other hand, was dimmer and more drab. The room was grey and dimly lit. The only objects were dresses and chinaware. The signs were much more feminine – round, purple accents, and including titles such as “The Nation’s Hostess”. Comparing the two exhibits, it is blatantly clear that the First Ladies built off of only the feminine aspects of the role, including only miniscule and easily missed tidbits about specific policy/charity-driven acts of the First Ladies. Their legitimate accomplishments are printed in small font and positioned towards the bottom of a display case, whereas the presidents has full displays committed to their accomplishments. The First Ladies exhibits was heavily focused on fashion and role as the “Nation’s Hostess”, i.e. the president’s wife.
Of course the president is the main object when considering the American presidency. But, it is interesting to consider how and why presidents and first ladies are presented in such different ways. Why, when considering the American presidency, are first ladies examined at all if only to be represented as an afterthought or purely feminine contrast to the president – why include them at all in the exhibit? Why chose to display the job of first lady to be fashionable and hospitable, and make legitimate feats and changes a minor part of her presence? I left the museum wondering if this exhibit was meant to highlight the sexism, or accidentally did through the interpretation that presidents led the country and their (female) counterparts were simply along for the ride.
Are females capable of leading a country? Or are they only seen through a narrow, feminine lens of fashion and hospitality that restricts them from ever (in the near future) being able to win over a general electorate?