The “American Presidency” and “First Ladies” exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History are clearly very different in how they have been rhetorically constructed. While the “American Presidency” exhibit focuses far more on the construction of the presidency as extremely powerful and masculine before exploring the legacies and impacts of presidents, and the “First Ladies” exhibit focused almost entirely on a rather misogynistic view of the first ladies as little more than fashionable hostesses, it seemed almost like the Smithsonian was more proud of the latter exhibit.
Outside of the two exhibits, a sign reads only “The American Presidency”, implying that both sides are part of a whole. However, this also has the unfortunate implication that the “American Presidency” side is more important, for there is no mention of first ladies at all until museumgoers enter the main room. In the main room between the two exhibits, there is a large, panoramic timeline listing the names of every president, which is immediately visible upon entrance. On the wall by the exit, there are a few large photographs of first ladies at their husbands’ inaugurations, looking like celebrities on the red carpet in their evening gowns, without any such timeline or list of names until inside. The visuals chosen to introduce the two exhibits echo how the presidents will be largely defined by their time in power and the first ladies will be largely defined by what they wore.
The museum clearly made choices that hid or left unspoken many of the first ladies’ achievements. The exhibit is dominated by the collection, which is mostly just dresses and china, so visually it restricts the audience’s most basic understanding of first ladies to their fashion and dinner parties. However, these items commanded more interest from the museumgoers, who would contemplate them for a longer time and exclaim over them more extensively than they would the items on the presidential side. It was not uncommon to hear people praising Michelle Obama’s inauguration gown, picking the set of china they liked best, or arguing over which gown was more beautiful. Unfortunately, this focus on the items themselves causes lessened focus on the written aspect of the exhibit or the overall focus on who the first ladies were/are as people. The written signs do little to encourage people to read them, as they are placed low and often begin with a lengthy description of the ladies’ styles and dresses before a shorter description of some initiative or personal project they pursued during their stay in the White House. Some first ladies did not have any accomplishments attributed to them, and the signs below the china said even less, only mentioning how the colors tied in to the overall décor.
In contrast, the “American Presidency” exhibit was heavy in posters, pictures, and text. One main room was broken up into sections on the president’s roles as “Chief Executive”, “Party Leader”, “Manager of the Economy”, “National Leader”, “Chief Diplomat”, and “Ceremonial Head of State”, all stated in bold letters in a room with large columns that gave a regal and Roman feel. Contrast this to the implied roles of the first lady as “Dress Occupant” and “Plate Designer” in the other exhibit. There were also items from the White House, though it seemed that the best items were either still at the White House or in its visitor center.
The exhibits are very different, but perhaps it would be unfair to fully condemn them for taking these directions. This Smithsonian’s most impressive and cohesive collection, in the entirety of the museum (as somebody who has visited many times and been consistently surprised by how few major items are on display other than the flag), is their collection of dresses and china from the first ladies. They also possess memorabilia and some small personal items from both first ladies and presidents, but those items are not nearly as impressive or as unique as a full collection of evening gowns and china spanning hundreds of years. It is reasonable to want to highlight these items rather than covering the walls with graphics that look like textbook pages as the museum does when they don’t have enough items to fill the space or tell a story. Yet despite the superior collection of the “First Ladies” exhibit, “American Presidency” created a more detailed and powerful image of the office using words, variety, and architecture, while “First Ladies” did little to delve into the women of the White House.