In Dallas, the memories of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have an anchor in Dealey Plaza, and, in particular, at The Sixth Floor Museum.
The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s slaying this Friday has led to an outpouring of tributes, books and films. Very few events in American history have provided such a traumatic touchstone, and very few cities carry the sort of baggage as Dallas, where Kennedy fell and was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time on Nov. 22, 1963.
The Sixth Floor Museum, which opened on Presidents Day in 1989, was fashioned out of the old Texas School Book Depository. Originally conceived as a temporary exhibit, it has evolved into a permanent museum dedicated to the events surrounding Kennedy’s death and is operated by the Dallas County Historical Foundation. It is also an anchor to the surrounding Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District.
“We’re fortunate to have the historic site and this space,” said Nicola Longford, the museum’s executive director. “Our job really is to encourage visitors who walk into Dealey Plaza . . . [to] come inside the museum to experience an unbiased and genuine look into the life and death and legacy of this president.”
An Institutional Mission
The institution is careful about how it phrases its mission, particularly when it comes to the sixth-floor sniper’s nest that formed the basis of the exhibit that became a museum.
“Following the Kennedy assassination, the building became the focus of shock, grief and outrage. Evidence was found showing that shots were fired from the sixth floor, and Depository employee Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the president’s murder,” the museum’s website states.
From the museum’s perspective, it’s not there to referee the fights about whether there was a conspiracy involved with Kennedy’s death or Oswald acted alone, a controversy that has spurred 50 years of debate. A cottage industry has developed in and around Dealey Plaza that leaves no stone unturned or unimagined when it comes to offering explanations for what happened that day. In general, the museum takes an archival stance.
“We’re now a collecting institution, and we have over 45,000 artifacts, from photographs, records, from the assassination. We own the rights to a lot of film and photographs and this has been an incredible resource for filmmakers and documentarians and all sorts of researchers and students and teachers, you name it,” Longford said. She added that the museum is also collecting oral histories that help frame the context for the assassination and its aftermath from a variety of perspectives.
“It’s important to teach to younger generations when you have this tangible link to the past through these stories and people who are willing to share them, along with the artifacts, how memory shifts over time. And that we’re not always in agreement. And we’ll always be looking back and interpreting this period in our history,” Longford said.
Peter Landesman, whose film “Parkland” details in a vivid narrative the events of Nov. 22, for one, was certainly grateful for the resources of the museum.
“They were very involved. They were very helpful to me,” Landesman said recently in an interview with CQ Roll Call about his picture.
An Initial Queasiness
The lines are usually long to get into The Sixth Floor Museum, particularly as the 50th anniversary started coming into focus. But the establishment of the museum and its place in Dallas history hasn’t been without heartburn.
In 1970, the Texas School Book Depository Co. moved out, and some members of the community called for the building to be torn down, perhaps in an effort to purge the painful memories associated with it.
“It took a very long time to convince community leaders here in Dallas that this story needed to be told to a national audience,” Longford said.
Dallas County acquired the building in 1977, and in 1981 it moved county administrative offices there. The top two floors, the sixth and seventh, remained vacant. In 1989, the initial exhibit that comprises most of the museum’s permanent collection opened on the sixth floor. The seventh floor opened on Presidents Day 2002 to house more temporary exhibits and public programming. A reading room and separate gift store and cafe opened in July 2010.
The museum is a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, places and institutions in the world that have been preserved to commemorate and interpret key historical and cultural events. Other member institutions include the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) in Senegal, the last stop for many Africans before being sent to slave markets, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, a school used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge.
“There was a great deal of ambivalence about even telling the story on the sixth floor of that building,” Longford said of the depository. “The fact that the building even existed, for some, was traumatic. But, over time, we served a need for a national audience and a world audience.”
Not Universal Acclaim
Not everyone is a fan of the museum. Jim Schutze, a writer for the Dallas Observer, has been a longtime thorn in the side of museum. Most recently, he wrote a scathing post for the Observer’s Get Off My Lawn blog titled, “Who Died and Made the Sixth Floor Museum the King of Dealey Plaza?” that blasted the institution. “The mission of the museum has been perverted in recent years. It has become a kind of enforcement arm for the ilk of people in Dallas who can’t stand controversy about the assassination,” Schutze wrote on May 13.
For context, Landesman noted the special kind of trauma Dallas has endured for years when it comes to the assassination. Regarding the 50th anniversary, Landesman said, “It can’t come and go fast enough for them. They feel, they take it personally. I know they take it personally. The only crime Dallas committed was letting Lee Harvey Oswald live there. And who knew he was Lee Harvey Oswald until he was Lee Harvey Oswald?”
From Longford’s perspective, it comes with the territory.
“At least people are talking about it. Instead of ignoring it, they’re talking about it, and that’s good,” she said.
The museum, the anniversary and her institution’s continuing mission to interpret the events contribute to an evolving story. “It’s an enduring interest we have here, the subject of the assassination. It’s a riveting story and we don’t see the interest diminishing, although it may change over time,” she said. And perhaps it can fulfill another purpose for the city.
“It’s a catharsis for many people here in Dallas who are speaking up for the first time. You would think that you’ve heard it all, but we haven’t,” Longford said.