Friday, May 10, 2002
Behind the scenes at the JFK Library: Curator Frank Rigg presents the JFK story to the public
He may be in charge of one of the most important historical collections in the United States, but Carlisle resident Frank Rigg is nothing if not modest. On the same day that the Mosquito contacted Rigg for an interview, NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg spoke with him on Morning Edition. "The Mosquito and NPR on the same day; I feel so overexposed!" he commented.
Three decades ago, the young Englishman was using his newly minted degree in social anthropology to conduct research in Spain when he met a woman from Macon, Georgia, at a café in Madrid. Although at the time he had no plans to leave Europe, she quickly persuaded him to apply to Brandeis University in Waltham for his graduate degree. The woman in the café became his wife and the move launched a career in museum administration that reads somewhat like a brochure from the Boston Visitors' Bureau: he worked first at the New England Aquarium, then at the Paul Revere House, and finally at the John F. Kennedy Library. A member of the museum's founding staff in 1979, Rigg became curator when longtime Kennedy associate Dave Powers retired, and it's a position he's held ever since.
Thirteen years after the library's opening, work began on a major overhaul of the museum space. The completely renovated facility opened in 1993, which Rigg recalls as one of the biggest moments in his career. But decisions about how to best present their material and their message are continuously evolving, he says. How to portray JFK's assassination has always been problematic, and became even more so in recent years as interest in conspiracy theories grew. "Some people are attracted to that side of the Kennedy story, but it's a little morbid," Rigg says. "We made a decision not to show any footage at all of the assassination or even the motorcade. Instead we have a corridor where you view TV coverage of the president's death, including the very poignant clip where Walter Cronkite removes his glasses and chokes up as he announces that the president has died."
JFK wanted to inspire and challenge people
The museum staff soon became aware, however, that people who finished their visit at this part of the museum were left with an overwhelming sense of melancholy and despair, which seemed incompatible to Rigg with JFK's mission and philosophy. "He wanted to inspire and challenge people," Rigg points out. So he and his staff designed an exhibit called "The Legacy," which features Kennedy memorials around the world, a section of the Berlin Wall, and various portrayals of how JFK's work has inspired others to strive to create positive change through public office. Included in this exhibit is film footage of a 12-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with President Kennedy in the Rose Garden while on a Boys' Nation outing.
Rigg had the pleasure of accompanying Bill Clinton himself through the exhibit and watching Clinton's reaction to that clip. Meeting dignitaries and celebrities is almost an everyday part of the job for him. "It's not a reason to work there, but it is quite enjoyable," he admits. Along with Clinton, he has hosted Presidents Ford, Carter and the elder Bush. Senator Ted Kennedy frequently brings his own guests on a private library tour, which has given Rigg the opportunity to meet such world leaders as Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and King Abdullah of Jordan. "Senator Kennedy gives a wonderful tour," he says admiringly. "He knows this history better than anyone. I've learned so much from listening to him." On a lighter note, Rigg admits that giving a tour to actor Kevin Costner was a memorable moment as well.
Figuring out what to include in the 18,000-foot space is always difficult, Rigg says. His inclination previously had been to minimize the use of personal documents, having been advised that museum visitors don't bother to read them. But Rigg's own experiences on a trip to visit presidential libraries in Texas changed that. At the Lyndon B. Johnson library, he read a letter that a young LBJ, then a schoolteacher, had written to his mother asking her to send toothbrushes and toothpaste because "these boys don't know how to brush their teeth." In that simple request, Rigg saw evidence of the social concern that would lead Johnson as president into his War on Poverty and Great Society programs. Another letter that strongly affected him was at the Bush Library, in which George Bush wrote to his mother after being shot down during World War II describing the anguish of losing so many of his crewmates.
The experiences convinced Rigg of the value of exhibiting personal documents, and among the Kennedy Library's most interesting examples are notes that JFK took during meetings in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. "In the margins, you see scribbled over and over again 'Missiles,' or 'Decisions,'" Rigg explains. "And when you see that, you realize that at the other end of this pencil was someone struggling with a decision that might or might not end in a worldwide nuclear holocaust." Another one of Rigg's favorite remnants on display is a note that JFK brought with him to his famous speech at the Berlin Wall. "On a scrap of paper, the president had written out phonetically how to pronounce 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"
Just over a year ago, one of Rigg's most high-profile projects reached the public eye: a special temporary exhibit done in conjunction with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art on the fashions of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. "I knew nothing about the history of fashion," Rigg admits, "so I had a lot of help with it. We brought in a fashion editor from Vogue as a guest curator, and had additional help from experts at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell."
Perhaps more challenging than creating the exhibit itself was figuring out the right ideological approach. "Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was insistent that her mother not be portrayed as merely a fashion icon," Rigg explains. "She wanted us to do the exhibit only if we could use it to reflect her mother's intellectual and cultural interests as well." Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself once made a similar comment, according to Rigg. Referring to the pillbox hat that many considered her personal fashion signature, she reportedly said, "I just want people to know that there's something underneath the hat."
When not conducting the diplomatically challenging task of giving international dignitaries enough time to take in the library's many exhibits without being late to dinners held in their honor, Rigg enjoys a quiet, rural lifestyle with his wife Karen. The two are frequent participants on the Carlisle Ramblers' long walks and travel occasionally to see their respective families in England and Georgia, as well as their daughter, who lives in New York. "What we love about South Street is that there are chickens in the road at one end and peacocks at the other," he points out. While the special exhibit on Jacqueline Kennedy's outfits was still in Boston (it has since gone on to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.), Rigg hosted a group organized by Carlisle's Council on Aging and gave them a special tour. Whether his guests are international royalty or Carlisle neighbors, Rigg unflaggingly conveys his devotion to his fieldeven in his third decade at one of the nation's foremost historical sites.
A few eclectic details
Because all presidential museums operate under the auspices of the U.S. government, the first thing required of Frank Rigg in order to be considered for employment there was that he become a U.S. citizen.
• Jacqueline Kennedy first visited the White House when she was 12 years old.
• As First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy's contributions included publication of the first White House guidebook, formation of the White House Historical Society, establishment of a collection of historical furnishings, and the creation of the Rose Garden.
• The JFK library houses the official collection of Ernest Hemingway's papers, and is the only presidential library with a collection unrelated to the life of the president it honors.
• Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg's husband, Edwin, is a professional museum designer who was instrumental in the 1993 redesign of the JFK Library.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito