Reagan Library’s new looks herald 100th birthday year events
By Mera Kelley
Nestled in the heart of Simi Valley is a library like no other in America and the state of the art technology used in The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum’s recent renovation makes it perhaps unique in the world.
I visited on Feb. 4 on the occasion marking the late president’s 100th birth date. It also marked the first official opening of the gallery of exhibitions for visitors from throughout the world. The festivities started at noon and closed at 8 p.m. A birthday cake was served after dinner.
The day was sponsored by General Electric and featured remarks by Nancy Reagan, actor Gary Sinise, James Baker, who held many offices in several Republican administrations, and Fred Ryan, Jr. chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Lee Greenwood performed, as did The Beach Boys — all choices of Nancy Reagan.
The Marine Band played as a fly-over by VFA-154 Black Knights followed a loud 21-cannon salute, which could be heard for miles. Reagan’s cronies quipped that were Reagan here today, he might have been watching the Super Bowl instead of staying for all the folderol.
On Feb. 7, the Library/Museum was open for the first time to the public since the renovation. Birthday cake was again served until the last piece was given away! That evening, an elaborate invitation-only dinner-dance was held “below” the three-story building housing the original Air Force One and a yearlong party of museum special events was underway! Being part of this once-in-a-lifetime celebration was an exhilarating experience, and the memories are still whirling around like confetti.
Most Americans think this location is The Ranch, the land the Reagans owned before he became Governor of California or had ever run for political office. They expect to see horses and the famous canoe he gave Nancy on their 25th wedding anniversary. However, that working ranch is in Rio del Cielo, near Santa Barbara, about an hour’s drive north.
The Library/Museum occupies 30 acres of the 100 donated by a developer. Plans were conceived while the Reagans were still occupying the White House. That dream became a reality in June 1989 and was financed by private funds. Although near the residential part of the city, it has an unbroken spectacular view of the hills and valleys that typify California.
After leaving office, Reagan helped build the museum. Attempting to duplicate the Oval Office with exact measurements, the architect told the President that the 18-foot ceiling of the Oval Office would not fit under the existing first floor of this building. Reagan suggested that they dig down, scooping out enough dirt so that that the reconstructed room would be proportioned correctly according to scale. Consequently, visitors walk down into that office, which includes bronze copies of Remington sculptures, a portrait of George Washington, porcelain vases from China, a desk given by Queen Victoria to then President Hayes, and other memorabilia.
When entering the museum, the background of Reagan’s family and parents, early years in high school and college, as well as the family Bible used in two inaugurations are displayed. The Conrad Hilton Foundation sponsored the GuideCam, similar to an iphone, that for a small fee, visitors can use to take 40 pictures and 16 videos of the museum, returning the machine before leaving. Each photo is sent to the visitor’s e-mail for copying — a first for any museum in the world!
The exhibits, including one from General Electric of Reagan’s TV days, take the visitor on a tour of his careers in movies and politics. There are two dozen hands-on projects for visitors, such as the opportunity to appear in a movie with The Gipper, then have it recorded with a museum camera for a copy to take home.
Most presidents are judged on their first 100 days in office, but Reagan’s critical days stopped at 70 when the following day he survived an assassin’s bullet.
Each year of his dramatic presidency is chronicled and events graphically portrayed, such as his sitting on crates to watch videos of Iron Curtain days. Each exhibit now has at least one “participation event,” such as standing in front of a podium with teleprompters to record a speech or mounting a plastic horse next to a photograph of the Reagan at the Ranch to have a picture taken “with” him and his horse.
Another outstanding, but temporary, exhibit is a miniature reproduction of the White House more than 50 feet long and 18 feet wide. Seen from the front, it is recognizable, but the back is an open dollhouse, complete with furniture, chandeliers, paintings and all items sized to scale.
Space in the museum has not been enlarged since the original museum was created, but the innovations have almost doubled the displays, according to the docents and more than 350 volunteers.
One of my favorite displays is of the daily notes made by President Reagan that fill seven journals and cover all eight years of his presidency. A monitor lets visitors pick a day and date, and within seconds, the selection is brought up on a screen. The entry Reagan wrote when in the hospital is poignant, “Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve Him in every way I can.”
At the back of the museum, outdoors overlooking the mountains, is a piece of the Berlin Wall, spray-painted depicting a flower topped by a butterfly — a sign of life after death in most religions. The slab of concrete stands 10 feet tall, 4 feet wide, and 8-10 inches thick with the work “FREE” scratched in red. Reagan was there when the edifice was brought to the site.
The exhibit chronicles the path to Reagan’s infamous words: “”General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
One of the most poignant photographs in the museum is one of Gorbachev and Nancy. After four meetings, resulting in signed agreements by both sides to reduce/limit nuclear arms, the two leaders surprisingly became friends of mutual respect — so much so that Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were invited to The Ranch, a rare privilege reserved for old friends, but few dignitaries. Reagan had the knack of negotiation, even with adversaries. When Reagan died, Gorbechev flew from Russia to attend the funeral when the picture of his “bear hug” of Nancy was taken.
If you go
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days, 40 Presidential Drive Simi Valley, California 93065
Admission: $12-$6. Free parking
Details: Allow 2 ½ to 3 hours to view all
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