The Truman is one of just ten presidential libraries in the nation, and among the most meeting-friendly… and in some ways it’s a planner’s dream. Anna Foote takes a look.
By Anna FooteOpposite, the “press room” at the Truman Presidential Museus & Library in Independence: above its exterior.
These days, when cynicism is in vogue and nearly everyone assumes that politicians can be bought, remembering a president like Harry S. Truman can be refreshing.
Truman rose to office on a mixture of persistence and hard work. During his eight years in the White House, he guided the United States—and much of the rest of the world—through some of the 20th century’s most difficult times. From the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan near the end of World War II through the formation of the United Nations to the beginning of the Cold War, Truman’s strong decision-making capabilities led the way.
When it comes to remembering Truman, there’s no better place than the Truman Presidential Museum & Library in Independence. The staff is dedicated to preserving Truman’s legacy through archived materials and exhibits on his presidency and his personal life.
And thanks to some forward thinking by the staff, the museum and library make a great place to host a meeting or event, too. A recent multi-million-dollar renovation included major improvements and expansion of the facility’s meeting capabilities.
Scott Roley, deputy director of the library, explains.
“We made some real design decisions,” he says. “You come up with a good solution that makes you even better than other places.”
Those decisions have provided the Kansas City area with a jewel of a meeting venue. The Truman is one of just ten presidential libraries in the nation, and among the most meeting-friendly. The Truman and its staff provide a wide range of theme options and activities; a variety of meeting spaces allows for meetings of various sizes and types.
In some ways, it’s a planner’s dream, says Roley.
“By having an event here, you’ve got the panache or prestige of a presidential location, but also the flexibility of a normal event location,” he says.
That panache comes to the fore in a variety of ways.
For one thing, all attendees are invited to view the museum’s exhibits, no matter how small the event or when it is held.
“You get the whole museum with any event,” Roley explains. “It’s part of our educational mission to make all exhibits available to guests.”
While all museum exhibits can be interesting to attendees, the newest can be especially so for audiences with young members. “Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times” is a 5,000-square-foot exhibit that outlines the president’s personal life. It features plenty of activity stations, which range from dressing up in period clothes to designing a campaign button to take home.
And many planners cash in on the prestige of meeting at the presidential library by inviting a library staff member to talk about Truman during their events. Archivists and curators will speak on a variety of topics, from President Truman as a world decision maker to the man as a small-town youngster, courting his future wife, Bess.
Museum staff will also pull archived material that relates to the theme at hand and provide color photocopies of it for use in meeting rooms.
Joni Cobb, public awareness and library advocate for the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, explains that a wide variety of materials is available.
“One of the neat things about being in the Truman library is that nearly everything you’d be interested in using is declassified,” she says.
Cobb says that using former top-secret documents can lend a sense of immediacy to many event activities.
While there may be additional fees associated with requesting special services like curator’s talks or copies of archived materials, the Truman staff is very accommodating to planners, Roley says.
“The library and its nonprofit partner see education as our main mission, so offering talks and making exhibits available to groups is very important to us,” he says. “We’ll do whatever we can to help groups tie into history.”
For a lighthearted link to history, some planners engage the services of the library’s resident Truman impersonator.
“Our impersonator worked as an archivist in the institute until his retirement,” Roley says, “so not only does he act like Truman, he knows him.”
The impersonator will hold press conferences and pause for photos with guests, and he can often be caught holding up a newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The prestige of a presidential location can be expressed in an array of meeting and event themes.
Common themes are fairly obvious: patriotism, presidential power and responsibility, post-World War II consumerism.
But Roley says there are plenty of other options for planners to draw upon.
“Because he was president, you can find a link to almost anything,” he says. “They did photo ops back then, so we have photos of Truman fishing and hunting, even though he wasn’t big on either.”
Roley encourages planners to think broadly when coming up with a theme that might relate to Truman. He stresses that museum staff is eager to work on a variety of topics.
However, here are some themes that Roley says Truman’s life and character might suggest:
Leadership and decisionmaking (from the presidential years);
Letter writing (the archives hold more than a thousand letters to Bess alone);
Veterans’ affairs (Truman commanded troops in World War I); and
Persistence (the man who would become president failed at farming and went bankrupt as a haberdasher).
As for theme, a special opportunity is forthcoming. During the autumn of 2005, the museum will host a touring exhibit, “The White House in Miniature.” This immensely popular exhibit draws crowds wherever it is displayed. In fact, the Truman experienced a 28% spike in attendance the last time the exhibit visited, in the late 1990s. The exhibit appeals to a wide crossover audience, from history buffs to dollhouse fans.
When it comes to meeting space, the Truman has the substance to back up its style. Eight distinct spaces and great traffic flow make a range of events possible. The venue can be comfortable for groups ranging from just a few people to several hundred.
One of the Truman’s most striking rooms is the museum’s main lobby, which features a 495-square-foot mural by Thomas Hart Benton. Entitled “Independence and the Opening of the West,” the painting’s strong composition provides a dramatic backdrop for events. The lobby can accommodate 100 people for a seated dinner or 250 for a reception.
Another distinctive space is the White House Decision Center (WHDC), which was designed to resemble the West Wing of the White House. Though the WHDC was originally intended to be a true-to-life classroom for middle-school, high-school and adult civic exercises, it can also be used as an out-of-the-ordinary meeting place.
The Decision Center is decorated with Cabinet-style furnishings and reproduction presidential oil portraits ranging from Washington to Kennedy. It houses four West Wing-style boardrooms and a press room, which is fashioned after the one in the White House.
The WHDC can host 45 people in classroom style or up to 70 for a reception. It’s especially useful for board meetings and seminars.
Like the museum’s main lobby, the Truman’s atrium and Legacy Gallery provide open spaces for receptions or seated dinners. The atrium accommodates up to 80 for a seated dinner or up to 200 for a reception.
The Legacy Gallery, which features a life-sized bronze of President Truman, can host up to 40 for a seated meal or up to 100 for a reception. The gallery also features floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the museum’s courtyard and eternal flame.
The nearby WhistleStop and Independence Rooms are traditionally styled meeting spaces. They can be used separately or in conjunction with each other. One room accommodates up to 90 for a seated dinner or 50 classroom-style; the other holds 50 for dinner or 24 in boardroom style. The adjoining atrium provides additional space for larger groups.
The courtyard can be used as an outdoor gathering place for guests, and is easily accessible to visitors in the atrium and the Legacy Gallery, as well as in the WhistleStop and Independence Rooms.
The Truman has two fixed-seating venues. The theater seats 52; the auditorium seats 239 and has a small stage. Both provide a range of audio-visual capabilities, and meeting in either can give reason to show interesting archival films.
Truly large groups may wish to make use of the entire space. In addition to the places mentioned above, the museum’s exterior grounds can be rented for supplemental outdoor activities. Whether the event is confinedto the indoors or makes use of the entire facility, good traffic flow ensures the success of big events.
The Truman has an approved list of caterers, but for planners who prefer to work with one that is not on the list, the approval process is straightforward. While food and beverages are prohibited in the museum exhibits, they are permitted in all of the other spaces described above, except for the theater and auditorium.
Though the Truman’s staff emphasizes the ease of making a presidential tie-in to most event themes, members are also quick to point out that the library can be an appealing venue for groups who aren’t interested in any aspect of Truman.
Among the library’s strong points are its variety and flexibility of meeting spaces; ample, convenient, free parking; and proximity to Kansas City proper.
Cobb stresses the importance of the Truman’s location.
“We want people to realize that we can be good for a destination conference because you’ve got the whole city right here,” she says. “We’re in Independence, but we’re part of the metropolitan area. We’re just 15 minutes from downtown Kansas City.” MM&E
(Anna Foote is a contributor from Kansas City, MO.)
Kathy Alexander, special events coordinator 1-800-833-1225