New exhibit at Truman Museum tells the rest of the story

Monday, January 5, 2004

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Wherever life and politics took him, there was one constant for Harry S. Truman: Bess Wallace, the childhood sweetheart who became his wife and eventually the first lady of the United States.

Now, the thousands of letters that Truman wrote to Bess throughout their lives have been put to use in a new, permanent exhibition at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library.

"Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times" opened over the weekend as the final piece of a $22.5 million museum renovation that began in the 1990s. The exhibition uses original artifacts, photographs, manuscripts and audiovisual programs to tell the story of the 33rd president.

Occupying nearly 4,000 square feet, the exhibition shows Truman's life in five areas: his early years, his family life, his political career, his life in the White House and his retirement. The goal is to give visitors a closer look at Truman, the man.

Michael Devine, director of the library and president of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, said Truman had strong ideas about what he wanted the Truman facility, which opened in 1957, to be about.

"Truman wanted the library to be about his presidency -- not him," he said. "We hope he won't take offense."

Truman's letters to Bess form "the thread of the narrative" in the five-part exhibition, said Scott Roley, deputy director of the museum.

From the time they met as children in a Sunday school class -- he a resident of Grandview, she living in Independence -- the two communicated by letter. He first proposed to her by letter in 1911, eight years before they married, and he was still writing to her when he was in the White House and she was in Independence.

Museum officials said they were thrilled to have the opportunity to show off artifacts from their collection of 30,000 items.

"Some of these may have been displayed before, but not for 15 years and only for six months," Roley said. "Most have never been seen before."

Visitors will be able to see the sorting desk Truman used as postmaster in Grandview before World War I and his 1941 Chrysler Royal Club Coupe and 1941 Chrysler Windsor four-door sedan. DaimlerChrysler restored the dove-gray automobiles.

Roley described it as "more kid-oriented" than the current Truman exhibition.

"There are a lot of hands-on activities, like dressing up in period clothes -- Bess' dresses, Truman's tuxedos -- and making campaign buttons," Roley said.


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