Museum – William J. Clinton Presidential Museum and Park, Little Rock, Arkansas

Entrance to the Clinton Museum.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Museum and Park presents many unexpected surprises to the visitor that happens upon this unique site. Not grandiose, not over-the-top – this is as concise, approachable, and welcoming as Presidential museums get.

Map showing museum and surroundings.

The museum is situated on the banks on the Arkansas River. The exhibit area of the museum proper is set atop a “base” on the ground floor that includes a welcome desk, temporary exhibition space, and other amenities for visitors. By elevating the primary exhibit floor to the second and third floor level, this is undoubtedly to ensure that artifacts and documents are well above the flood plain from the nearby river. One of the most prominent features of the site is a large railroad bridge that has been converted for pedestrian uses. A prominent view of this bridge is provided from the exhibit floor. This provides a not-so-subtle reference to “A Bridge to the 21st Century” – the theme employed by President Clinton during his 1996 campaign for a second term.

View of bridge from inside of the Clinton Museum.

Upon entering the museum visitors a greeted by a staple in nearly any presidential museum – the presidential limousine. Then by taking a nearby elevator or ascending a staircase one is transported back to the years of 1992 to 2000.

Few museums are more rationally laid out or architectural than this one. Eight large panels titled at a slight angle run down the center of the museum display floor. These each represent one year of the presidency. They have a timeline, descriptive text, and inset television screens continually streaming news coverage of important moments. One is reminded how the Clinton presidency coincided with the expansion of 24/7 Cable News coverage – exemplified by channels like CNN. The experience this creates for the visitor is to literally transport them back to the sights and sounds of the era as people who lived during that time experienced them.

The stacks clearly dividing the museum floor.

Large stacks run from the first to second floor levels. These are reminiscent of a library and filled with what appears to be archival storage boxes. Whether these boxes contain any documents or artifacts is unclear. The role the stacks serve, however, is to create several niches or display spaces on the first and second floors.

Several niches on the bottom floor of the atrium explore different themes from the Clinton presidency. One such theme is “Putting People First.” A prominent quote is inscribed on the glass enclosing a display case behind. In that case are television monitors again, a collage of photos in the background, and other descriptive narrative text accompanied by photos. Portions of the text are highlighted to accentuate key points visitors should be drawn to.

Tilted panels laying out the Clinton presidency year-by-year.

Putting People First themed display.
On the upper floor of the atrium guests are greeted by some of the most precious artifacts including the dress that Hillary Clinton wore to the Inaugural Ball, a complete table setting with china from the Clinton White House, and a signed jersey from Lance Armstrong, the repeat-winner of the Tour de France.

Panorama of the Oval Office in the Clinton Museum

Guests are also greeted by a replica of the Oval Office – another staple of most Presidential Museums these days. Replicas of many of the most precious paintings and artifacts stand in for the original. Visitors are only able to view the room from behind velvet ropes. Still, the space and the furnishings create a distinct impression.

In the interest of giving equal time to other branches of the Executive Office, a replica of the Cabinet room is also present. The glimpse provided into this less-frequently seen and known room was a welcome counterpoint to the Oval Office display. One has the impression that it might be possible to convene a meeting in this room today, and surely this is done from time-to-time. In contrast the Oval Office has the feel of a museum piece – to be seen but never to be used again.

View from the Clinton Museum to downtown Little Rock.

The relationship between the Clinton Museum and nearby downtown Little Rock is also an interesting one. Rather than having a gift shop within the museum proper as is frequently done, the Clinton Museum Store was located off into the downtown area. The Clinton Museum and Store are connected by a brief 1/8 mile tree-lined road. A golf cart with a trolley pulled behind provides visitors a free trip between the museum and the downtown.

Once downtown the Clinton Museum Store is located within a renovated historic building. How many people get to the store, and whether this has proven to be effective as a satellite retail operation is uncertain. Though great benefit is certainly created by attracting additional people to the downtown area, and by linking the museum with the downtown. 

There is very apparently a resurgence happening in the area around the Gift Shop downtown.  The Arkansas Studies Institute and the Clinton School of Public Services have completely taken over a three-story building that has been renovated across the street. An attractive science center and other amenities are also clustered around the Museum Store, so as a downtown revitalization tactic this clearly is a great success.

To close, the Clinton Museum demonstrates a powerful vehicle to travel between the past, present, and the future. The past is represented both by the Museum itself and the time that it seeks to capture, as well as the many well-preserved historic buildings and railroad bridge that are important parts of the Museum complex. The present and future are then experienced by each successive wave of visitors that comes to the site. The Clinton Presidential Museum presents so many admirable qualities that seem to only grow over time. Hopefully many people will be able to experience this one-of-a-kind place and the one-of-a-kind President that it seeks to interpret and explain.

While visiting the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum I  filled out a visitor survey form as I am frequently prone to do. Just a few weeks or so after visiting I received the following message. I’ve filled out hundreds of forms like this and never heard anything back. This was a really nice gesture by the folks with the Clinton Museum. So much so I thought it important to share as an example for others…

On Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 12:40 PM, Linda Leopoulos wrote:

Dear Isaac, Thank you for visiting the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and for sharing your thoughts with us on a visitor card.  It is always a pleasure to hear from our patrons after they have toured the museum, and it was especially nice reading your comments.  We are delighted that you enjoyed your tour and the time you spent viewing the accomplishments of the Clinton Presidency that were made by “Putting People First.” The exhibits reveal a presidency of leadership and optimism for our country and for the international arena as well.  Visitors often express renewed feelings of hope and inspiration after their tour.  Since leaving our nation’s capitol, President Clinton continues to work hard to improve the lives of millions of people in the areas of health, education, poverty, economic stability, and environmental protection.  Website expands on these important initiatives and on how we can all make a positive difference in the world around us. Thank you for your interest and desire to tell others about the Library.  Current information  on exhibits and events at the Clinton Center can be found on the Center’s website throughout the year. Come back and see us! Linda H. Leopoulos Visitor Relations