‘America’s house’

The White House as a living museum

Created date

June 22nd, 2010

It s probably the world s most famous address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue an 18-acre plot of carefully manicured grounds on which stands a Georgian-style mansion. The National Park Service lists it simply as Reservation No. 1. First Lady Dolly Madison called it the President s Castle, but most know it as the White House. Forty-two presidents and their families have made this place home over the last 210 years, each change in residence a testament to the democratic process. Like the Statue of Liberty, the White House is distinctly American.

Preserving American history

But when First Lady Jackie Kennedy came to the Executive Mansion in 1961, she found rooms furnished with imitation period furniture and modern fabrics. None of these things reflected the home s grandeur and heritage, so the Kennedys launched a program that would promote and preserve this important part of American history. They had the White House declared a museum, jump-started efforts to build a collection of period antiques and presidential artifacts, and created the Office of the Curator to manage it all. In the years since, only seven people have had the honor of such a charge, and James Ketchum is one of them. The role of curator is intimately tied to the collections of the White House, their interpretation, and preservation, says Ketchum, who served from 1963 to 1969. The curator s job is to tell the story of this magnificent building through decorative arts, authentic period furniture, and historic documents.

Hands-on museum pieces

Still, unlike most museums, where ropes and thick glass cases distance visitors from displayed artifacts, those in the White House are within arm s reach, many of them actually used daily. A four-poster bed purchased by Mary Todd Lincoln, for instance, has served several presidents and overnight guests. The desk used by George W. Bush in his private study was the same one on which William McKinley signed the Treaty of Paris in 1898, thus ending the Spanish-American War. Guests received in the Blue Room can sit in armchairs that President James Monroe ordered from French cabinet-maker Pierre-Antoine Bellange in 1817. He purchased these and other pieces with money appropriated to refurnish the White House, which the British burned down during their attack on Washington three years earlier. Many of these items came as donations from private owners following Mrs. Kennedy s famous televised tour of the White House in 1962, a broadcast which drew 58 million viewers. After it aired, thousands of letters poured into the White House and onto then curatorial assistant Ketchum s desk. One stands out in his mind to this day. It came from an eight-year-old boy named Joseph, who had sold lemonade to raise money for a new elephant at his local zoo. He soon changed his mind and sent the funds to Washington with a note reading, There will be many more elephants for the St. Louis Zoo, but there is only one White House.

Multifaceted work

The spirit that Mrs. Kennedy inspired 50 years ago endures today, and ever since, the White House curator has worked to maintain its momentum. Indeed, the job, as Ketchum describes it, is far more than simple cataloging.I would arrive at the White House by eight in the morning, meet with staff members and the first lady, and begin preparations for upcoming events, such as the unveiling of a presidential portrait, he recalls. Later, I might visit a conservator s shop to check on the progress of a repair, meet with the great granddaughter of an architect who worked on the West Wing s construction, and the next day fly to New York and visit Sotheby s, where a presidential artifact was up for auction. The curator is constantly on the lookout for new acquisitions for the White House collection, which includes thousands of examples of fine art, furniture, silverware, and architectural drawings. Many of them are either associated with a past president or were in the White House during an administration. Ultimately, though, the objective is preserving a key element of our American heritage. Each first family that takes up residence in the 132-room mansion leaves their personal stamp in some way before they leave. The curator helps them accomplish this, while at the same time faithfully portraying the legacies of their predecessors. Ketchum wouldn t trade the experience for the world. As curator, you feel responsible for all of the families that lived there going back to John and Abigail Adams, he says. Your priority is certainly with the current president and his family as far as their use of the house and their understanding of the collections, but you have an obligation to past presidents and to the public as well. It s America s house.