The Sixth Floor Museum
On Wednesday, we drove to Dallas from Arlington (I was visiting Tim for Thanksgiving) to go to the Sixth Floor Museum, which is in the Texas Schoolbook Depository building. Depending on whether or not you accept the Warren Commission report, this is where sole gunman Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
It was a beautiful fall day, much like the day the tragedy occurred. Since the events occurred 42 years ago, almost to the day — and at the same time as the assassination (12:30 PM) — we saw everything in Dealey Plaza in the same lighting. That made it extremely eerie to be in this place, seeing the “grassy knoll,” the surrounding structures and buildings, and Houston and Elm streets, which have largely remained unchanged because of the historic nature of Dealey Plaza. It seems a smaller space than I imagined.
Left: a memorial poster of sorts on Elm Street; right: The sign for the museum at the book depository, which is on the corner of the Elm extension.
Left: the grassy knoll. The arrow in the picture on the lower right points to one of the “X” marks on the pavement on Elm Street — noting where shots struck Kennedy. The bottom picture is of the railyard monitoring station, which is behind the grassy knoll, separated by the infamous wooden fence where conspiracy buffs say another gunman took the fatal shot at the president. The area is now the parking lot for the museum.
There are plenty of exhibits on the first floor, which is open to the public, including a graphical timeline, and artifacts, such as the scrubs and shoes worn by one of the doctors at Parkland Hospital where the limo raced with Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connolly.
We went up into the museum ($13.50 with the audio tour), and we spent nearly three hours up there. The sixth floor of the building has retained the feeling of a warehouse, but it has been completely transformed and filled with physical exhibits and photos. As you wind your way through, there are areas with video terminals that play news reports or interviews with witnesses, and alcoves with seating where continuous short films play on various topics (American culture at the time, milestones in the Kennedy administration/policies, world reaction to the assassination, media coverage, etc.).
The museum doesn’t shy away from Kennedy’s political failures (The Bay of Pigs), and thankfully steers clear of the woman-chasing nonsense, which doesn’t belong in this particular museum. One of the short films featuring Walter Cronkite, underscored the reality that JFK was only in office for a thousand days; we’ll never know what he might have done in a second term that would have affected this country for good or ill (Kennedy never dipped below 56% approval, btw). However, JFK had a completely different, more sophisticated world view and optimism about our country (the space program), its potential to effect positive change (Peace Corps) and trust in the people — the current man sitting in the Oval Office looks like a f*cking clown next to JFK.
The seventh floor is equally engaging; it houses a new exhibit, Covering Chaos, which is devoted to the media coverage of the assassination, which was a milestone in terms of television news coverage (four days straight, no commercials). It made me feel old to see the faces in the video footage of the coverage of Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby. Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Robert MacNeil, and Jim Lehrer were at the beginning of their careers. Jennings actually flew to Dallas on his own tab from Canada to cover the events. Another segment of the exhibition compares the technologies of 1963 and today; it was interesting to see the huge cameras used. I don’t know how they fit these gargantuan objects, along with the journalists, in the crowded hallways of the police station where Oswald was perp walked.
We made our way toward the exit, where they have guest books for people to sign with their impressions. Above the guestbooks was this quote, which made me cry, and it affected Kate as well…
We seek a free flow of information… we are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.
— JFK, on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, in February 1962.
Yes. That is where we are today. A time where we have the Patriot Act and the Pentagon is expanding its domestic surveillance activity. After seeing all of the museum, and thinking about this state of things, I contributed my two cents to the guestbook:
I cannot fathom how far the promise of this country has fallen. For all of Kennedy’s mistakes and flaws, his sense of what we as a country are capable of cannot be denied. The current administration shows us what happens when amoral people helm the greatest country in the world. This is a sad situation.