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The Nixon Attraction

Can history and politics compete with theme parks and beaches to lure visitors?

South Coast Plaza previewed some of what's to come in the new library at “The Week That Change the World – Nixon, China and the Arts” exhibit in May. David Grant, left, GM of South Coast Plaza and Sandy Segerstrom Daniels were among those who attended.

Last year Orange County was inundated with more than 47 million visitors who arrived with dreams of visiting Disneyland, tracking world-class surfers in Huntington Beach and exploring the seemingly endless supply of other epic attractions the county has to offer. They spent $11 billion, and this year’s tally is likely to be higher.

It’s hard to imagine how an institution dedicated to U.S. history and the preservation of one man’s legacy can compete with the lure of the Balboa ferry or Mickey Mouse. But the 26-year-old Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda is about to up the ante with a tech-heavy, $15 million renovation that has been in the works for several years and under construction for 12 months.

When the doors open to the public on October 14, visitors will encounter the story of a 20th-century president presented in 21st-century style – with films, digital interactives, curated archival film sequences, photo ops and hundreds of photos. In the process, the movers and shakers behind the re-do – many of them from Orange County – are betting on more than an increase in attendance, which averages about 100,000 annually.  Their goal is to reshape the public perception of recent history, to tell a multilayered story that is not dominated by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

“This is an opportunity to take in the fullness and totality of Richard Nixon’s life,” says Lawrence Higby, a resident of Lido Isle who worked in the Nixon White House and now serves on the board of directors of the Richard Nixon Foundation, which raised the money for the renovation. He happily recites a list of timeline-worthy milestones, ranging from the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency to Nixon’s participation in the 1972 SALT talks.

And, like others connected with the museum, Higby is eager to talk about the technology involved in  the redesign. “This,” he says, “is clearly the most modern presidential library in the country.”

Design and production services were provided by two companies steeped in the art of theme parks, exhibits, events and museums:  the Thinkwell Group (“The Making of Harry Potter” at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London) and Cortina Productions (the “Revolutionary Spy Adventure App” to be used at Mount Vernon). Their approach to the narrative is nonlinear. Dwight Chapin, another Nixon administration alum who has been involved with the renovation, calls it “cinematic.”  After visitors  watch a 12-minute presentation on the life of the nation’s 37th president, they will find themselves  immersed in a series of multimedia presentations on the tumultuous years that proceeded Nixon’s election in 1968.

Many of those associated with the renovation – board members, Nixon administration alumni, museum officials – say this part of the museum tour is one of their favorites. They stress that if visitors are going to understand what Nixon was facing in the early days of his presidency, they must revisit (or discover for the first time) events – the Vietnam War, riots, assassinations – that divided the nation in the 1960s.

The museum will also provide visitors with social media-worthy photo-ops – posing behind a presidential desk in a replica of the Oval Office or standing on the Great Wall of China with cutouts of President and Mrs. Nixon. “We expect to see quite a few photos posted on Facebook,” says Joe Lopez, a spokesman for the foundation.

Visitors can dabble in presidential decision- making with interactive exhibits that will pose significant questions (Should the U.S. invade Cambodia?) or listen to private phone conversations between the president and world leaders. A “Nixon in Culture” exhibit will touch on his place in art and pop culture, and visitors will be reminded that “Richard Nixon’s head” guest-starred in a few episodes of “Futurama.”

You can even help plan a White House dinner or sift through Nixon’s yellow-pad notes via a touch screen. “He was well-known for taking copious notes,” says Lopez. Nixon was “preparing for speeches, preparing for trips,” he adds, and “you will be able to read through them,” although “his handwriting can be a little difficult to read, so there will be a printed transcription next to it.”

Chapin sounds practically giddy when he talks about the yellow-pad interactives. “There was a line in the movie,” Chapin says, referring to the museum’s opening film, “I think it’s been removed (but it said) ‘Nixon’s best friend was his yellow pad.’”

The library has not abandoned its research mission. In addition to the White House tapes, the library has a large audiovisual collection, oral histories and more than 46 million pages of “textual materials” available to anyone who wants to study Nixon’s life and career. But with a new generation of potential museum-goers steeped in Snapchat and Instagram, the renovation may provide an opportunity to have the best of both worlds.

The library opened in 1990 as the privately run Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace and not a part of the presidential library system that falls under the umbrella of the National Archives and Records Administration. Many historians were scornful of its initial efforts to tell the story of Watergate – adding to the ongoing debate about the role of the presidential library in an impartial chronicling of U.S. history. But the institution became part of NARA in 2007, and Nixon’s White House papers, which had been withheld by the National Archives, were moved to the museum in 2010. The following year, the Watergate exhibit reopened after a major redo – angering some Nixon loyalists but winning favor in museum and academic communities.

The campaign to raise funds for the current renovation started in January 2013.  “From the outset,” says Chapin, “we understood that this library had to be credible. … It was imperative that we tell the whole story.”

Michael Ellzey, who became director of the library in 2014, has pledged that the narrative will be complete – “a new, more interesting and provocative look at Richard Nixon.”
The message resonated: The foundation pulled in $25 million ($10 million will be used for education and programming), much of it from Orange County residents. Foundation board member George Argyros and his wife, Julia, funded the replica of the Oval Office; fellow board member (and member of Nixon’s White House staff) James Cavanaugh and his wife, Esther, funded the Lincoln Sitting Room.

“I think the Lincoln Sitting Room was one of President Nixon’s favorite places in the White House,” Cavanaugh says. “He would go off with his yellow pad and start contemplating programs and initiatives he wanted to put into place,” and its restaging is a “great venue to tell the story about how he worked.”

But Cavanaugh says his favorite spot in the Nixon narrative comes toward the end of the tour, where exhibits summarize “the end of his career: the resignation, the move to California, jumping back into international issues and re-establishing his place” in the world.
But will the newly redone museum and its unconventional tour have a spot on the hot OC destinations list?

Nixon, Cavanaugh says, “jumped back in and took his place as an elder statesman. I think it’s highly motivating … to see how people can come through a difficult period, pick themselves up and get moving  again.”

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