New Year’s Eve is not the typical day to visit a Presidential Museum, but I was still on the front end of a nice long weekend and braved the drizzly morning to accomplish a presidential trifecta. I stopped at Warren Harding’s birthplace (just a plaque) and woke up a dog, then visited the new Harding Museum across the yard from his home, and finished the morning standing at the Harding gravesite. It was (for me) the perfect way to end 2022.
This year I have visited nineteen states, some (such as New York, Indiana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) more than once. And I have paid my respects at seventeen presidential gravesites. That number shocks me, but add to that another twenty or so presidential sites and it all means 2022 was a great year.
Fitting to finish at one of the closest Presidential sites to my home on the last day of the year.
The last time I visited the Harding Home was in 2016. They were in the final stages of purchasing the surrounding properties in order to tear them down and build a new Presidential Library and Museum. At the time, it was planned for an opening in 2020- the one hundred year anniversary of Harding’s historic win- a plurality still not met, even by Franklin Roosevelt or Nixon’s win in 1972.
The 2016 visit was my third or fourth visiting Marion, and I always exited the home and extremely small museum believing Harding did not have a proper understanding in our nation’s memory. But for a few friends (similar to President Grant’s legacy) he has been summoned to the dump heap of history.
And it is wrong.
His legacy is up front and center at the new Museum. And I am very happy to report it is a museum which has a delightful feel to it.
Allow me to explain how a museum can be ‘delightful.’
Number one- there are three different types of museum visitors. (Four if you count the people who wait in the car. Ha!)
First, there are the Readers: These are the wonderful folks who walk into a museum and read every single card on every single artifact. Bless these folks, for they hold up the lines.
Second, there are the Spotters: These are the folks that can stand back a few feet from the displays and view the artifacts without getting up close. They might step in every now and then (when they Spot!) to read a card or take a picture of something that catches their eye as interesting.
Third, there are the Waiters: The Waiters are people who stand even further back from the Spotters because they have no interest at all in the artifacts, but are content to join their spouse or children or friends in walking through the displays. They walk, and wait, at the speed of their group but don’t pay much attention at all.
The Harding Museum has plenty of room for all three of these groups. And even though I walked through by myself and the museum was empty- I could feel there was plenty to see either up close, five feet away, or from across the room.
The displays drew you through the exhibits. Again- there were large items, medium sized and small- all different kinds of items from the home, the office, clothing, even the podium where Harding gave his Inaugural Address. Large photos made for an ease in viewing that I am grateful- because I forgot to take along my reading glasses.
I believe the best part about this museum is that even the Waiters will come away knowing more about Harding. You can’t help but get drawn in to the characters and the story.
If you ask me how much I know about Harding, I would report that on the spur of the moment I could give a 30-40 minute presentation on his life and presidency without much angst. So much of the museum was old hat for me- but I admit this- I was still enthralled. I enjoyed every single moment of my visit. And I am sorry to say I was so taken by the experience that when someone asked me if I had any questions, I barely even noticed them.
There are also two films shown in two separate rooms on the opposite side of the museum. As you watch the film of Harding’s life, you can look out the window to the home which witnessed almost all of it. And during the film of the restoration, you can also look out the window at the home. I am sad to report the next phase of construction (the Library) will erase these views, but the benefits of the Library (and the Harding papers coming from Columbus to Marion) all but cancel the pleasant ‘vibes’ that come from the view.
Finally- I was struck by something else in the museum. Most presidential enthusiasts know that Harding had a mistress, and probably more than one. Recent DNA testing has proved the lineage between Harding and Nan Britton’s daughter. The Harding Museum now includes this part of Harding’s life.
I point this out because I believe it is an important part of Harding’s story. Sometimes museums can ignore things like this and it makes for an awkward moment when someone eventually brings it up. But by including the fact, the museum allows the visitor to read about it and add it to the Harding story as they see fit.
Leaving the museum, I decided to pay my respects at the Harding Memorial just a mile and a half away. I walked up to the gate at exactly noon, as the chimes rang out their familiar refrain.
Warren Harding’s legacy is complicated. 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of his untimely death. Perhaps this year we can finally take in the whole picture, standing up close or not.
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