By Marina D’Ambrosio
A collection of photographs and memorabilia to narrate the first modern American Election, and the men and women behind it…
If last week’s American elections have left you tired, worn out, and in my case, disappointed, I have the recipe to soothe your tired bones . Head to the closest international airport and catch a flight to Berlin, and then drag yourself to The Museum “the Kennedy’s”.
Granted, it might not be the first pick of people visiting the German capital. American history? In Berlin?! Let me politely disagree and take you on a small tour of this very special place.
The museum is a collection of photographs from well known and virtually unknown photographers, plus very special items collected by the museums over the years and put on display in shiny glass cases. The focus of the exhibition is on the work and life of JFK. Nothing here will bring you back to his assassination: it really is a celebration of his story and his career, and the meeting point between his short presidency and the impact it had on the way Presidential campaigns and depictions have been managed ever since.
It all starts in a long corridor, as an introduction to the man’s life. Pictures are set up in chronological order, starting from the Boston upbringing of both Joseph and Rose Kennedy, JFK’s parents. A noteworthy personal picture of both Kennedy’s grandfathers next to each other on a horse ride tells us a funny story: the two Bostonians knew each other before their children fell in love, competing for the same seat in the State Senate, and were therefore opposed to the marriage. Rose was sent to Europe in an attempt to have her forget about the man who would become her husband. Well, didn’t quite work out that way did it.
Pictures of the Cape Cod compound of Rose and Joseph with their 9 children in tow testify to the focus they both put on making the little ones future state and opinion leaders. Personal teachers and trainers would follow them everywhere making sure they were reading, thinking, debating and discussing the issues of the day. We can see personal records of weekends on boats around the Kennedy mansions and close shots of the big family just hanging out.
The historical 1953 cover of Life Magazine is also on show, the beginning of the media obsession with Jack and Jackie. Pictures from the wedding of the decade, a very swanky affair for a – until then – humble senator from Massachusetts are really the beginning of the public’s obsession and intelligent management of the image of JFK the man, and not only the politician.
It is not so important who you are, what’s important is what THEY think you are – Joseph Kennedy Sr. to his sons
There are a lot of testaments to the informality of the family around the camera and around each other. Namely a great snap of Ted Kennedy sitting on the stairway the night of the election, surrounded by family members, while John was already in bed, tired out from the lengthy campaign. As legend goes, he didn’t learn about his victory until early the next morning, when daughter Caroline woke him up whispering “Good Morning, Mr. President”.
An interesting anecdote is that John Kennedy was the first president ever to hire a personal photographer, Cecil Stoughton, responsible for many historical shots also on display here. Jack apparently had a button fitted in the Oval Office linked to Stoughton’s rooms, ready to be pushed if he deemed the situation picture-worthy. This is the genesis of the legendary picture of the President clapping his hands while his two children dance and jump around him.
The Berlin room
The ties between JFK and the city of Berlin
JFK surely has a special place in the heart of the city of Berlin. Since his historical speech in West-Berlin, where he announced that he was “ein Berliner”, there is an automatic association between the man and the place he visited. There are loads of funny details, though. The museum shows the official schedule of his trip, demonstrating he spent a total of 9 hours getting from the hotel, to the Town Hall where endless crowds where awaiting him, to the airport on his way to Dublin.
Another anecdote the museum can testify to is the original intention of Jack to give a much longer part of the speech in German. We can indeed see the sheet of paper where he noted the phonetic pronunciation of the words he wanted to say, in the end abandoning the project, so taken and shocked by the sight of the Berlin Wall he changed his original speech into a much stronger “j’accuse” towards the Soviet Union.
Different pictures of the historical day grace the walls, together with documents from the speech and the original Hermes bag donated to JFK by his father, still in mint condition and acquired on auction by the museum. It was with him since the 30’s in London, and all the way until the day he was killed.
Modern Campaigning 101
This room gives us a very interesting inside look at the legendary campaign of Kennedy vs. Nixon, including the first ever televised presidential debate. JFK was so aware of the input of image that he slashed his opponent by, you guessed it, wearing the right suit. Really. He picked the colour of his jacket so that he would stand out from the background, and he had nothing against make-up. Unlike Nixon, who was sweaty, dressed in a baggy grey suit which made him disappear into the TV studio, and was massively less confident than his counterpart.
Consider that, while people who listened into the debate by radio leaned towards Nixon, television audiences were strongly in favour of Kennedy.
Not that Jack had no physical weaknesses to speak of. He actually had several: plagued by Addison’s disease and war wounds, he had to be on massive dosages of testosterone (which actually had the plus side of making him look pleasantly tanned) and had to wear a corset to support his back to be able to walk. But he was a genius in working with them: on display in a case in this room is JFK’s shirt, conveniently double layered so not to show the support needed to keep him on his own two legs.
The Myth Room
Following another corridor with displays such as Jackie Kennedy’s signature hat and her Tiffany receipts (funnily enough, while Jack gave his whole presidential wage to charity, his wife was a big spender, to the point of actually worrying him) we get to the “Myth Room”.
This is the piece de la resistance for any Kennedy fan such as myself. This is the era of hope, after all. The era of the Space effort and civil rights and Camelot. Pictures of the other family members are prominent here, amongst which my favourite Kennedy, Robert, during his own campaign and after, with crowds bidding him farewell from the train as his body was taken to the cemetery after his assassination.
We can also see Jackie’s pictures of the post-John era, starting from the funeral and until her death in 1994.
Special Exhibition – The Campaign: Making a President from 1960 to 2016
Issues of yesterday and today colliding
This extra exhibition, to be continued until January 2017, really ties the knot between then and now, making a connection across American History.
Prominent German artist’s Christoph Niemann’s work, mainly for the New Yorker, are on display here, with a stress on the latest Trump-Clinton face off and the issues prominent in recent campaigns.
A lot of these magazine covers are very strong and really get the attention to how early we were aware of the present issues facing the recently elapsed campaign. Themes published in 2004, for instance, are really the big discussions still going on between candidates nowadays
A Museum for the photography and the history lovers.
This museum really has something from everyone: extremely well curated and touching, it is still extremely relevant to the issues of the day while giving something extra to the history lover, political nerd and Kennedy fan.
The Museum The Kennedy’s is situated in Berlin, on Auguststrasse 11-13.