John F. Kennedy has been called the first television president, with a visual presence like none before him and few since. A half-century after his death, however, an estimated 80 percent of Americans have no direct memory of him.
But the 35th president remains enormously popular, and the Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester hopes to bolster and expand that connection through the most ambitious technological makeover since the complex opened in 1979.
Helped by a gift from philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, the museum will expand exhibit space that chronicles Kennedy’s life and legacy with dramatic, new visual offerings and will give visitors more interactive access to documents, speeches, and other papers from his administration.
The idea is to make the president up close and relevant, partly through an array of large screens, some of them wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, that will bring his words and image to the 200,000 people who visit the museum each year.
The $2.5 million project is expected to be completed by spring 2015.
“We know that the new technology can bring the story to life in new and dynamic ways,” said Thomas J. Putnam, director of the library and museum.
One example of the new, immersive experience will be the exhibit on the televised debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign. The display now shows that pivotal event on small televisions placed high on a wall at either side of the exhibit.
After the makeover, one large screen will take up almost an entire wall. The hope is that visitors will feel they are witnessing the debate, in which Kennedy offered a telegenic, energetic contrast to Nixon.
“Looking at a little screen, it’s hard to get the impact,” said Heather Campion, chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
Another visually inviting display is scheduled for the existing re-creation of the Oval Office, where Kennedy’s address to the nation about civil rights in June 1963 is shown on two small monitors. Similar to changes for the debate exhibit, the plan is to replace the monitors with a large screen that will appear to put Kennedy on the scene.
“To a generation that does not remember President Kennedy, it should be a much more powerful experience,” Campion said.
Much of that experience will be enhanced by restoration of nearly 500 hours of film in an in-kind gift from Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, a Hollywood company that specializes in film preservation.
Colors are being brightened, clarity is being sharpened, and sometimes-grainy footage is being improved to give Kennedy a more immediate and personal presence.
Film of the president’s inaugural address already has been enhanced, so much so that Kennedy’s breath is more clearly defined as he delivers his short speech on a cold January day in 1961.
In addition to film, the project will make more of the collection’s 48 million pages of documents and 400,000 still photographs available to the public through interactive displays that can be easily re-shaped to respond to current issues and interests.
“What you have here now is a traditional library with traditional exhibits,” Campion said. “This will enable us to share the collection in ways that are really unprecedented.”
One plan is to display the working drafts of some of Kennedy’s speeches, including his famous inaugural address. The editing shows a man who is concerned about putting emphasis on certain words, about cadence, and about punchy bits of humor.
Only minor changes are planned for the solemn display about Kennedy’s assassination, in which footage of Walter Cronkite’s emotional broadcast of the president’s death is played in a continuous loop on small screens set against a dark wall. And no changes are planned for the airy, soaring pavilion designed by I.M. Pei to be a memorial space.
When the project is completed, even the acoustics should be improved. “You hear a lot of competing sounds now,” said Campion.
The last full renovation of the exhibit spaces occurred in 1993.
The project is receiving half of its funds from a gift by Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder of The Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm based in Washington.
Additional money donated by Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, was used as part of the library’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency.
“I got involved in public policy because of him,” said Rubenstein, who was deputy domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
He recalled watching Kennedy’s inaugural address in sixth grade and how its call to action has resonated with him.
“The speech is poetry in prose form,” Rubenstein said.
Rubenstein said he hopes the changes will lure younger people from their computers and experience the museum first-hand.
“I hope that the money will enable the library to be updated and modernized and make it more interactive,” Rubenstein said. “The Kennedy Library is a great resource, and our young people should know about it.”