Normally, tourists pack into Washington’s museums in the days before and after a presidential inauguration, to admire exhibits of First Ladies’ gowns at the National Museum of American History or to see the new president’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.
Since things are not normal this year, most museums remain closed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, you can view these exhibits virtually, and FREE, and maybe even learn something in the process.
This list is adapted from one published by the Washington Post
Library of Congress
One of the largest libraries in the world, the vast holdings contain a wealth of inauguration-related items, including handwritten presidential addresses, photos and etchings of ceremonies, and commemorative programs and admission tickets.
The easiest way to sift through it all is by starting with “I Do Solemnly Swear,” the online version of a 2017 exhibition about inaugurations.
It is sorted by president, and each page packed with original source material. Obviously, there’s more from presidents more recent than John Quincy Adams’ 1825 swearing-in.
You can also dive into the collections of presidential papers, where you’ll find inaugural addresses along with first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but the section also includes such wonderful discoveries as 13-year-old George Washington’s school exercise books and Theodore Roosevelt’s personal diary, including the heartbreaking entry from the day he lost his mother, and then his wife, in the space of a few hours.
New York Historical Society
Want to sit at The Resolute Desk in the Oval Office? I did, at a special permanent gallery at the New York Historical Society. “Meet the Presidents” is a detailed re-creation of the White House Oval Office, where presidents have exercised their powers, duties, and responsibilities since 1909.
The museum has re-opened to the pubic, but much of the exhibit is available online, including audio recordings of presidential musings.
Presidents can furnish the Oval Office to suit their own tastes, and this re-creation evokes the decor of President Ronald Reagan’s second term – including a jar of the jelly beans he loved – and is widely considered a classic interpretation of Oval Office design.
The Resolute Desk, which has been used by almost every president, was presented by Queen Victoria of England in friendship to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.
The original was made from timbers from the British Arctic explorer ship H.M.S. Resolute, which was trapped in the ice, recovered by an American whaling ship, and returned to England.
Additional parts of the exhibit include portraits or photos of each president, plus artwork and objects that explain the evolution of the presidency and executive branch and how presidents have interpreted and fulfilled their leadership role. Highlights include the actual Bible used during George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, and a student scrapbook from 1962 chronicling JFK’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In addition to safeguarding our founding documents, the National Archives safeguards our founding documents, the National Archives administers the electoral college – which has played such an important role in the recent presidential election – and also oversees presidential libraries.
The elections and inaugurations page features videos of presidential inaugurations over the last century. including a silent clip of Warren G. Harding’s 1921 ceremony and a newsreel about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1945 swearing-in at the White House. There’s also “The Day of the Oath,” a 1965 government documentary with musical performances by Louis Armstrong and Carol Channing setting the stage for rare footage from the turn of the 20th century.
The site also includes links to inaugural-related features at presidential libraries.
The National Museum of American History is one of the most-visited museums in the U.S., especially for its “The First Ladies,” exhibits of gowns and china, is on the must-see list for many visitors to D.C.
Find them on these links: “The First Ladies” and “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden”. The collection begins with Martha Washington’s inaugural gown, through the one worn by Michelle Obama. Some are easier to navigate if you click for the text version.
The museum also has an extensive collection firearms from the Revolutionary Era to the present. I remember years ago, on a visit to DC with my then-young children, giving “equal time” for my daughter to explore the gowns exhibit, and my son to explore the firearms exhibit.
National Portrait Gallery
Boasting “the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House,” the “America’s Presidents” exhibition features some of the most famous images of our chief executives, including Gilbert Stuart’s full-length “Landsdowne Portrait” of George Washington and George Peter Alexander Healy’s painting of a seated, contemplative Abraham Lincoln.
The online exhibition is organized similar to the physical one, complete with thematic videos, and offers the chance to see multiple images of the same president from the gallery’s collection.
Just before the Smithsonian museums closed again in November, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” looking at the role first ladies and White House hostesses have played in US history, telling their stories with paintings, sculptures, photographs and dresses, including loans from the White House, State Department and presidential museums. This exhibit is similar to “America’s Presidents,” and also worth exploring.
White House Historical Association
Did you know that the White House has its own historical association? This is the place to go for a deep dive into the history of inaugurations and presidential transitions.
You’ll find historical reflections on the shadow of war looming over Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, the history of reviewing stands and public pomp and circumstance, and more. Don’t overlook the “1600 Sessions” podcast — including an episode about how first families move in and, more importantly, out on Jan. 20, along with virtual events featuring authors and historians.