A Glorious Burden – America’s First Ladies

First Ladies are unofficial but important members of presidential administrations. For more than 200 years we have judged their clothes, their parties, their projects, and their roles in the White House.

That’s the first paragraph in the introductory panel to the First Ladies Installation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. When you enter the exhibition dedicated to the 40 plus women who have served as “America’s Hostess” you encounter displays of ball gowns and dinnerware. There is a moving video of Michelle O’bama donating her inaugural dress to the collection and championing hard work and dedication.

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It is s very dramatic space, with low lighting and beautiful high fashion. It has a calming presence on you and is in direct contrast to the exhibition with which it shares the floor. Directly across the hallway is the entrance to the American Presidency experience, titled “A Glorious Burden.” This exhibition is full of light, and sound, and interactive stations, and object after object after object. And it got me to thinking.

What if we flipped the script?

Without changing a single thing in the First Ladies exhibit – leave every dress and china plate in place, no rewriting of object labels – what if we simple put those words as the title to the exhibition? First Ladies – A Glorious Burden.

Imagine the different experience you might have in the space. These women become real people who carry a great burden, the challenge of constantly pleasing every citizen while living out their lives in public. The pressure to put on an image every single day. To always appear put together, from their clothes to their place settings. Everything must match. Everything must be in order. Everything must be perfect.

The introductory paragraph got it right, “For more than 200 years we have judged...”

What a powerful message that would be.

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