- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. | There’s nothing quite like the thought of visiting a presidential library to make the average American stifle a yawn and reach for the remote. As it turns out, the people behind the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum understand this.

That’s why they never stop loading the library with goodies. Not interested in poring through the former president’s official documents? Then how about getting up close and personal with a piece of the Berlin Wall? Or taking a tour of Air Force One — not a replica, but the real thing — big as life and on display in an enormous glass-walled atrium?

Attractions such as these have made the Reagan library the best-attended of the 13 presidential libraries, even though its location, atop a hill in the Ventura County suburbs almost an hour north of Los Angeles, isn’t terribly convenient to anyone except local residents of Simi Valley.

Fortunately, a history-making presidency provides a lot of attention-grabbing raw material for a historical site.

“We’re realistic. We’re in Simi Valley,” said Melissa Giller, spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan Foundation, which runs the museum and library. “We’re just outside Los Angeles, we’re just outside Santa Barbara. You really have to make a choice to drive here. If you do drive here, we want to make it worth your while.”

Deciding whether to make that drive just became a little easier. On Monday, in honor of the Reagan Centennial Celebration, organizers will open the newly renovated museum to the public for the first time. And while the old museum wasn’t bad, certainly no more ennui-inducing than any other presidential exhibit, the 2.0 version is a show-stopper.

For one, the revamped facility is huge: The designers spent $15 million on renovations that added 26,400 square feet to the previous facility. This is no quickie tour; to experience fully the entire museum would take at least three hours. That’s asking a lot of the average U.S. attention span, especially when it comes to the subject of history, but even those who flunked high school civics may find it hard to tear themselves away from the Reagan museum’s action-packed story of the late 20th century.

This museum doesn’t just display stuff: It grabs the visitor by the collar and pulls him inside, throws him in the middle of the action, demands his participation, lays him low with despair and then lifts him up, finally sending him back out into the world, exhausted but exultant.

And those are just the Mondale voters! Let’s just say it would be difficult for even the most hardened progressive to emerge from the museum unmoved, and perhaps just a bit more inclined to entertain the possibility that Ronald Reagan may not have been a total disaster as president after all.

The museum is also a technological innovator. It’s the first to employ the GuideCam, an Apple collaboration that looks like an iPhone but enables patrons to take photos and shoot video during their tour. When they’re finished, they return the GuideCam, and before they’ve arrived home, their photos and video have been sent to their e-mail addresses.

The museum’s patent on the device is pending, but the GuideCam is just one way of compelling the attention of museum viewers. Every one of the museum’s 18 galleries contains something to induce patrons to stop watching and start doing.

Kids can climb through the holes in a replica of the Berlin Wall and read messages about life behind the Iron Curtain on the other side. Movie buffs can go before the cameras and appear in a scene from “Knute Rockne: All-American” with Ronald Reagan the matinee idol. Anyone who wants to experience the reality of living in America during Reagan’s tenure as president can play a touch-screen version of the game of Life, complete with information about changing stock prices, tax rates and government regulations.

It may be one of the rare museums not specifically designed for adolescents that could successfully hold their attention for more than a few minutes. John Heubusch, the Ronald Reagan Foundation’s executive director, said the idea was to make the museum as interactive as possible, with an eye toward engaging the younger generation.

“The way people are educated today isn’t just by looking at artifacts. You want to tell the story, make it in 3-D, put them in the middle of it,” said Mr. Heubusch. “We paid a phenomenal amount of attention to how we could use new technology and museum science to educate new Americans who might not have been alive when Reagan was president.”

Then there are the films.

Reagan knew a thing or two about playing to the camera, and the museum is generous in its use of his television and movie clips, along with films produced especially for the exhibit. It opens with a “movie trailer” that sets up the visit, takes a long pause toward the middle with a documentary about the history of communism (during which viewers sit on faux ammunition crates) and concludes with a cathartic “Greatest Hits” version of Reagan’s life.

Two aspects of the exhibit in particular are likely to generate comment. The first is the museum’s treatment of the Iran-Contra affair, considered the low point of the Reagan presidency. The museum devotes one 10-foot wall panel to a straightforward description of the events, including Reagan’s televised explanation, which is more than the previous exhibit did.

“They say we didn’t say enough about Iran-Contra before, so now we have this,” Mr. Heubusch said.

The second is the museum’s depiction of the 1981 assassination attempt. Visitors walk through the replicated doors of the Washington Hilton and find themselves on the sidewalk watching life-sized film footage of Mr. Reagan being shot from just a few feet away.

The effect is riveting — and disquieting. Clearly, museum designers want patrons to feel as though they are in the middle of the action, but when does being up close and personal step over the line into voyeurism and tastelessness?

Mr. Heubusch defended the exhibit design.

“It’s history. It’s a defining moment of the Reagan presidency,” Mr. Heubusch said. “It’s not possible to tell his story without it, so we try to tell it in the most compelling way possible.”

The museum also pulls no punches when it comes to fingering the bad guys. The section on the Cold War and international relations features a rogues’ gallery of outsized portraits, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Yuri Andropov of the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong of China, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.

Politically correct? Hardly. This is the Reagan museum, not the Smithsonian. At a time when traditional U.S. museums are loath to display anything that hints of American exceptionalism, presidential museums may become the go-to destinations for Americans looking for a blast of patriotism to go with their history. That’s a void the Reagan museum fills with aplomb.

After the addition of Air Force One in 2005, museum attendance shot up to 500,000 visitors per year. It’s leveled off to about 375,000, but organizers expect the renovated museum to bring in another 100,000, maybe more. It’s not hard to imagine families starting their vacations at Disneyland or Universal Studios, then tacking on a day for an entertaining yet educational afternoon at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

It might even be worth the drive to Simi Valley.

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