THE OBAMA FOUNDATION in Chicago announced Louise Bernard will serve as the first director of the Museum of the Obama Presidential Center. Bernard, who has previously been associated with the New York Public Library, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, will oversee the design, development and operation of the forthcoming museum.

Few specifics are available about the museum, which is in its early planning stages. In response to an inquiry about the museum’s focus, purpose, and the kinds of exhibitions it would present, an Obama Foundation spokesperson told Culture Type: “The Obama Presidential Center will be a living, working center for engagement — an ongoing project for us to shape, together, what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century. The museum will highlight the lives and work of President and Mrs. Obama, as well as the issues of our time, to encourage visitors to create change in their own communities.”

Located on the South Side of Chicago in Jackson Park, the presidential center is expected to open in late 2021.

“The museum will highlight the lives and work of President and Mrs. Obama, as well as the issues of our time, to encourage visitors to create change in their own communities.” — Obama Foundation

BERNARD’S BACKGROUND spans exhibition design, African American studies, literature and theater. Most recently, she served as director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library. Previously, she was senior content developer and interpretive planner with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the New York-based museum design firm, where she was part of the design team that developed NMAAHC on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bernard also served as curator of Prose and Drama for the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and an assistant professor of English at Georgetown University.

She earned a Ph.D. in African American studies and American studies from Yale. She also holds master’s degrees in theater history and English literature, and an undergraduate degree in drama.

“One of the key aspects of the Obama Presidential Center is a museum that does not just tell the story of the Obama Administration, but inspires individuals and communities to take on our biggest challenges. We are excited for Louise to join our team and help us develop a museum that is active and engaging,” said David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation, who described Bernard’s credentials as “impeccable.”

Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, serves on the foundation’s board of directors. She said: “Louise is a respected scholar and cultural producer in the museum community known for her passion, rigor and dedication to her work. I look forward to seeing the innovative and groundbreaking ideas she brings to the Museum of the Obama Presidential Center.”

“Louise is a respected scholar and cultural producer in the museum community known for her passion, rigor and dedication to her work. I look forward to seeing the innovative and groundbreaking ideas she brings to the museum.” — Thelma Golden

LAST MONTH, the center’s design concept was unveiled. The campus will include three buildings—the museum, a forum space, and library. The few details noted the “state-of-the-art” museum would be “the tallest of the three buildings, will hold exhibition space, public spaces, offices, and education and meeting rooms.”

The Obama Presidential Center is working in coordination with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), to develop a new model for preserving and accessing presidential records. Rather than serving as a repository for paper archives, the center is providing virtual access to its records. For the first time in presidential history, all of the unclassified records from the administration will be digitized in the near term. While NARA maintains control of presidential records, digitizing them will make the information more readily accessible to the public.

Meanwhile, the Obama Foundation has requested and NARA is in agreement that the museum portion of the presidential center will be built, owned and operated by the foundation as a private museum.

“I’m honored to work alongside such a talented team at the Obama Foundation, and to have the opportunity to help guide and shape a museum that is a truly innovative social and cultural institution,” Bernard said.

“I look forward in bringing President and Mrs. Obama’s remarkable story to the broadest possible audience, and to highlighting the crucial role of civic engagement in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to local South Side residents, and to people across the country and around the world.” CT

 

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Featuring invaluable insights from museum leaders, curators, and architects, “Making a Museum in the 21st Century” anticipates the future of museum design and operational sustainability as institutional priorities shift to audience engagement, evolving visitor demographics, and serving as both a cultural and community leader.