Arkansas clearly remembers and celebrates native son Bill Clinton. Hot Springs notes its role as "President Bill Clinton’s boyhood home," but that’s nothing compared to Little Rock. Clinton served six 2-year terms as governor here, starting at the young age of 32, and honed his considerable political skills throughout this small state.
The Old State House (scene of the memorable 1992 election night celebration) and other Little Rock places contain exhibits, videos, banners, posters or other acknowledgements of the 42nd president. But the centerpiece of all this remembrance is the recently finished Clinton Presidential Center, in the River Market district just east of central downtown and right off I-30. Located on a large, riverside property cleared of abandoned warehouses, the complex contains the Museum itself, the archives of Clinton’s presidential papers, and (in a restored 1899 brick-red train station), the Clinton School of Public Service of the University of Arkansas. All these are centered in a large park, with green expanse to either side of the museum, filled with newly planted trees that will in time make this a great place to walk.
The Museum is a three-story, modern metal and glass rectangle. The northern end is cantilevered out towards the Arkansas River, a suggestion of the "Bridge to the 21st Century" theme of the second campaign and presidency. The building won the Honor Award of the American Institute of Architects, and it is indeed impressive. A green building with LEED Silver certification, reused, recycled and low-impact materials are used throughout (including bamboo and rubber for the floors, aluminum in the wall coverings).
We arrived after lunch. Despite the gray, drizzly weather, there was a sizable crowd. Entering on the first floor, we passed through the now ubiquitous metal detectors and purchased our tickets at the first floor desk. This level is mostly devoted to entry; the only exhibit is the Presidential Fleetwood Limousine with a small display on the history of presidential cars and the Secret Service. In the basement is Café 42, which closed by 3pm the day we were there.
The exhibits are on the second and third floors. Echoing the construction of the White House, each floor contains an oval room directly under (or over) the one on the neighboring level. On floor two, that space is a small auditorium where a short film on Clinton’s life and presidency—narrated by Clinton—shows all day. It’s introduced by one of the docents, who said, in his mild Arkansas drawl, "I guarantee, you’re gonna like it." We did.
We then spent the rest of our time in the exhibits. Just north of the theatre is a re-creation of the Cabinet Room. At the seat of each Cabinet member is an interactive video screen (used repeatedly, and to good effect, throughout the museum) that allows you to read about issues in each policy area and the process through which they were addressed. Running down the remainder of this floor is a long center display that moves linearly through the 8 years of Clinton’s presidency. On one side are events, issues and accomplishments for the year, augmented by more interactive displays. Filed in a series of notebooks at each station are the Presidential schedules for each day of that year, which are really interesting to page through. On the reverse of this display are interactive screens that access the same schedules, along with copies of letters from or to celebrities, heads of state, and others from the 8-year Presidency. Detailed exhibits on issues such as the economy, the Middle East, education, the environment and others flank this central row on both sides.
The third floor is more about the pomp and circumstance of the presidency and the stories of the Clintons themselves. The third floor oval is (like the Cabinet Room) an exact re-creation of the Clinton Oval Office. You can only look in from several openings, but screens at each one allow you to examine the history and origin of the objects within (or to take a guided tour of any White House room with Bill or Hillary). An exhibit on Clinton and music opened recently, highlighting music at the White House, music throughout his life, instruments given to him, etc., making it feel a little like a Hard Rock Café.
There’s too much here to take in during one visit. As interested as I was in this president, and in my first visit to a presidential library, I felt a little overwhelmed. If you’re coming for the first time, try to think of a time period or an issue that you’d like to learn more about. That would keep you from wandering aimlessly and feeling like you were never going to get the most out of your trip. Or maybe that’s just a risk for ‘completists’ like me.
The Museum is at 1200 President Clinton Avenue, just east of I-30, and is open 9-5 everyday but Sunday (1 pm to 5 pm). Parking is free; admission is $7 ($3 for kids). From I-30, take exit 141A (Markham St.). The Museum store is a few blocks west at 610 President Clinton Avenue; it’s just a short walk, but there's also a free shuttle. The store opens one hour after the Museum, and closes at 5:30 each day.