January 29, 2018

The Senate Wing Flag: Behind the Scenes

In planning Mourning a President, an exhibit about the funeral of John F. Kennedy, it was fitting that an American flag was selected as a key focal point. Prominently displayed is the flag that flew over the U.S. Senate during the period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy. This is the first time that this 15- by 10-foot flag, which is part of the Museum’s vast collection, has been on view fully unfurled since 1963.

The U.S. Senate wing flag is displayed on the seventh floor of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
The U.S. Senate wing flag is displayed on the seventh floor of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

The largest and most striking object in the temporary exhibit, this flag was hoisted above the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol building on November 7, 1963 as a matter of routine. When news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reached Washington, D.C. on November 22, the flag was lowered to half-staff, and it remained that way until it was lowered on December 22, at the close of the official month of mourning. While this flag did not play a formal role in the funeral, it was a prominent symbol of the nation’s grief on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

When installing a historic artifact for public viewing, the desire is to make an object as accessible as possible while protecting it from damage – be it from environmental elements such as light or from risks associated with the display methods. The flag provided a unique challenge, due to both its size and age.

A textiles conservator carefully prepares the U.S. Senate wing flag for installation as part of the Mourning a President exhibit at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
A textiles conservator carefully prepares the U.S. Senate wing flag for installation as part of the Mourning a President exhibit

In the exhibit’s planning phase, the Museum’s Collections staff enlisted a textiles conservator to examine the historic flag to help determine if it could be safely displayed. In February 2017, this critical assessment took place in a public space where Museum visitors were intrigued to witness the process. Assured the flag’s physical integrity was intact, staff proceeded with plans to install the flag in the future exhibition. “It’s in very good shape structurally. There was some discoloration, mainly in the center of the flag, which is common when textiles are in storage,” says Lindsey Richardson, Curator of Collections. “Stains were present on the flag when it was acquired by the Museum, and we can only speculate as to their origins.”

It was important that the manner of hanging the flag in the exhibit comply with advisory rules for display and care of the U.S. flag set out in the United States Flag Code, while at the same time ensuring the safety and long-term preservation of the flag as a museum artifact. Mounted from a custom-made rod and sleeve that both support the flag’s structure and allow it to extend freely from the top, the fully unfurled flag provides a striking centerpiece to the exhibit. Museum visitors are able to view and appreciate the flag in its entirety, while its safety and preservation needs are addressed by controlled lighting and a barrier rail.

When the exhibit closes, the flag will be cleaned and carefully stored using archival-grade materials, preserved for future generations as an important symbol of the death of one of this great nation’s most revered leaders.

The U.S. Senate Wing Flag will be on display as part of the Mourning a President exhibit until February 19, 2018.

 

Author’s Note: In 1954, President Eisenhower issued Proclamation 3044, which established federal guidelines for the display of flags at half-staff for national leaders and other officials as a mark of respect to their memory. The proclamation specified that upon the death of a president or former president, the flag must remain at half-staff for a thirty-day period. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the first presidential death following the proclamation, making Kennedy the first for whom the month of mourning was observed.

Additional information about what the American flag symbolizes can be found here.

 

January 19, 2018

The People Mourn: Artistic Expression and Responses to the Death of President John F. Kennedy

The world was shocked by the astonishing, violent act of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Many of those grieving chose to express their feelings through song, poetry, art and musical scores — all created to memorialize President Kennedy. The artistic contributions of Kennedy’s admirers after his death provide a deeper understanding of how the world felt following such a tragic loss.

Songs have been sung about Kennedy, his assassination or the events surrounding it, such as Mr. John (1964) by songwriter William Spivey. In the Summer of His Years was written by Herb Kretzmer and composed by David Lee just hours after Kennedy’s death, and performed by Millicent Martin on the BBC on November 23, 1963. Since then, it has been performed by a number of other artists, including Connie Francis, who donated proceeds from her recording to the J.D. Tippit Benefit Fund, supporting the family of the Dallas police officer who was slain in the Oak Cliff section of the city less than an hour after the assassination.

He Was a Friend of Mine, re-written by The Byrds to lament Kennedy’s assassination, appeared on their album Turn! Turn! Turn! in 1965. Son House performed a moving and sad lament for the late president aptly called President Kennedy, also released in 1965. Additional songs in the 1960s include Crucifixion by Phil Ochs in 1966 and Abraham, Martin and John, authored by Dick Holler and performed by Dion in 1968 about American leaders who were assassinated.

Musical scores that were composed after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 include A City Mourns (for John F. Kennedy) by Dorothy Elliot and The Kennedy March, written by Joe Meek and performed by the Joe Meek Orchestra. In 1964, Remembrance: John Fitzgerald Kennedy by Fred Wirtz and William Steffe was published, and three years later, Oliver Nelson unveiled The Kennedy Dream, a tribute album with eight original tracks, including Day in Dallas, Let the World Go Forth and Jacqueline.

The Kennedy Dream by Oliver Nelson, released in 1967.The Kennedy Dream by Oliver Nelson (1967)

President Kennedy was known to enjoy reading poetry, so it is fitting that a number of poignant poems were penned in his memory. One of them, Six White Horses, was written about his funeral by a fifteen-year-old named Candy Geer. The illustrated, published version of this poem is on view through February 19, 2018 as part of Mourning a President, a temporary exhibit about the funeral of John F. Kennedy, on the seventh floor of the Museum.

A page of "Six White Horses" by Candy GeerA page of Six White Horses by Candy Geer. Joseph Bastian Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Other poems and collections of poems have been written in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred and Sixty Three was authored by Wendell Berry and illustrated by Ben Shahn (1964) and Poems in Memory of John F. Kennedy by Virginia P. Keinz (1967).

The cover of November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three by Wendell Berry and illustrated by Ben ShahnNovember Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred and Sixty Three by Wendell Berry and Illustrated by Ben Shahn (1964)

To this day, active and creative forms of expression inspired by Kennedy’s legacy continue to shape our collective image and memory of the fallen president. The Sixth Floor Museum actively collects many of these multi-dimensional artistic and personal reactions to the assassination. This blog shares just a tiny selection of individual responses from the 1960s decade. The Museum has many artistic pieces not discussed in this blog available for researchers to view, including original art, some of which are on display in the temporary exhibit Mourning a President. If you would like to learn more about other JFK-inspired forms of artistic expression created over the last fifty-four years, please contact the Museum’s Reading Room Librarian here, to schedule an appointment or discuss related materials in our collection.

January 4, 2018

The IMLS-grant-funded Inventory Project: Behind the Scenes

Once every ten years, collections staff at The Sixth Floor Museum conduct something called a “wall-to-wall inventory” – it’s a way for staff to account for every item in the Museum’s permanent collection. In 2016, the Museum received a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to help fund such an inventory. Intended to be a three-year project, the Museum started its latest inventory project in October 2016. Our Curator of Collections, Lindsey Richardson, oversees the project. Her first step was to hire two full-time Inventory Technicians – Anne Hanisch and Jennifer Browder. This is the team that will carry our project through from start to finish.

A wall-to-wall inventory is just what it says: a count of every single collections item in the Museum’s storage spaces. “Inventory is an important standard in museum collections management because it helps maintain intellectual control over collections,” says Lindsey.

“The collection is already really well-organized. There are at least 50,000 items, and we expect that number to increase as we go. This year alone, we have inventoried 15,000 items,” adds Anne.

Caption: Anne Hanisch (left) and Jen Browder (right) inventory items at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

Lindsey explains, “It’s important that we know exactly what we have, where it is, and if there are any storage issues that need to be addressed. In general, the standard has been for museums to conduct a complete wall-to-wall inventory on a regular, cyclical basis – in our case, every 10 years.” Thanks to the IMLS grant, The Sixth Floor Museum can add a few extra steps to the usual inventory procedures. “Instead of just counting everything and matching to existing data, we are also processing unnumbered items.” Lindsey goes on, “So, at the end of the inventory, every item in our collections should have both a number (that will make tracking and finding it much easier) and a basic record in the database (which makes searching the contents of our collections infinitely easier).”

Jen explains further. “For example, one of the items we’ve come across is a board game – it didn’t have a number. Since the board game is an item, it gets an object number. Each little part that comes with the board game, such as the dice, cards and tokens, also needs to be accounted for, so each is assigned a part number. That way they are still connected to the game as a whole but are also accounted for as individual items in our collection.”

Caption: This board game from the 1960s comes with many parts such as dice, cards and playing pieces. Jen and Anne inventoried every single part associated with the object.

Jen also points out the care and attention to detail they and other members of collections staff practice in order to preserve, document and store objects in the collection: “We house every single object in archival materials so that they’ll be preserved for as long as possible. Hopefully, these 50+-year-old objects will remain in good shape so that multiple generations after us can still access them and learn from the stories and history they represent.”

This type of detail-oriented work can be difficult, but Anne and Jen are up to the challenge. The goal for the three-year project is to account for every item in The Sixth Floor Museum’s collection at every location where collections are stored. The team has already made great progress and other members of the collections department are happy to see the connections made between collections items and the improved quality of data for items already inventoried.

Both Jen and Anne are familiar faces at The Sixth Floor Museum. Anne previously worked in the Museum Store + Café, and Jen interned at the Museum while she was in high school. They both knew that they wanted to end up working in collections, and their degrees in history and museum studies have prepared them for the work they are doing at the Museum. They’re happy that the work they’re doing over the course of this three-year grant will have such a large impact.

“I think people need to understand how large a museum’s collection is. What you see on the surface, or what you see on display at the museum, is the tip of the iceberg. Since the museum wants to preserve and make accessible everything in collections, the things on display are the most obvious form of access. The rest, all the other collection items we have in storage, are hidden from view,” says Anne, “Because that’s the best way to ensure their preservation.”

Caption: Anne examines documents from The Sixth Floor Museum’s collection.

For the next two years, Jen and Anne will continue to work toward ensuring our collection is completely inventoried, with accurate data and archival, well-organized storage. And if you’re wondering about all the interesting objects they get to inventory, they love that part of their job, too.

“The coolest part about our job is we will get to handle every single one of those objects. So, it’s a large task, but it’s a very important task,” says Jen. Anne says it’s super-exciting to be working on an IMLS grant, especially for self-proclaimed history nerds like themselves. They wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services MA30-16-0215-16.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

December 21, 2017

Oral History Project: In Memory 2017

By Stephen Fagin, Curator, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

As we look ahead to the 55th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination next November, the ongoing Oral History Project at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza continues to gather unique perspectives on President Kennedy and the history and culture of the 1960s. Unfortunately, the passage of time inevitably means that we lose valued storytellers who have contributed memories to this ever-growing archive of “living history.” Between December 2016 and December 2017, we recognize the passing of a record number of oral history participants. We would like to acknowledge those who have helped us build a more complete and personal portrait of the time period.

In December 2016, we lost longtime Southern Methodist University professor Marshall Terry. Terry recalled being concerned about political extremism in Dallas in the early 1960s. Local resident Mickey Greer witnessed this firsthand when she saw protestors heckle U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in October 1963. That negative atmosphere inspired Greer to become more politically and socially active, much like Kennedy campaign volunteer Janet Cormier and civil rights activist Opal Mitchell Lee, who participated in several sit-ins. Future mayor Robert Folsom was president of the Dallas school board in the early years of desegregation. He worked with fellow board member Bill Hunter, whose son was born at St. Paul Hospital in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Eight-year-old Bill Paxton sits atop a stranger’s shoulders while listening to President Kennedy in Fort Worth. Gene Gordon Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza 

The evening before the assassination, President Kennedy spoke at the annual conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Houston, where Roy R. Botello captured a color home movie. When the Kennedys arrived in Fort Worth late that night, Bettye Baccus was there to shake their hands. She saw the president again the next morning when he spoke outside the Hotel Texas. Actor Bill Paxton, an eight-year-old in that crowd, sat on a stranger’s shoulders for his chance to see President Kennedy. Fort Worth natives Elizabeth Sullivan and Cecile McKenzie were too busy working that day to go to the Hotel Texas. In November of this year, we lost these lifelong friends—both at age 106—within a week of each other.

Mary Woodward Pillsworth witnessed the assassination from the north side of Elm Street. Zapruder Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

From Fort Worth, the Kennedys flew to Dallas Love Field, where high school student Sherry Simmons cheered their arrival. Thousands lined the motorcade route, including WFAA Radio employee Richard Bove, as the parade made its way to Dealey Plaza. Dallas Morning News reporter Mary Woodward Pillsworth was on her lunch break when she witnessed the assassination. On the scene immediately, Dallas County deputy sheriff Eugene Boone searched the nearby rail yards and later discovered a rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Bob Welch captured the only sound recording of President Kennedy’s death announcement at Parkland Hospital. He is pictured here as the cameraman. Dallas Times Herald Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

The motorcade sped toward Parkland Memorial Hospital, as witnessed by Dallas resident Robert S. Richardson. Following close behind was WBAP reporter Bob Welch, delivering one of the first reports of the shooting. At Parkland, Welch captured the only known sound recording of the official announcement of President Kennedy’s death. People everywhere soon learned of the assassination, including those gathered at the Dallas Trade Mart for the scheduled presidential luncheon. Longtime Dallas Times Herald women’s news editor Vivian Castleberry was there, assigned to cover Jackie Kennedy’s visit to the city, along with Jean Kerr, who had been asked to sing the national anthem that day.

Vivian Castleberry takes notes during a moment of prayer at the Dallas Trade Mart luncheon.  William E. Cooper Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested that afternoon inside the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.  Joan Bickerstaff Nichols was on her way to the theater to visit her friend, cashier Julia Postal. In the hours after Oswald’s arrest, hundreds of journalists descended on Dallas, including New York Times reporter John Herbers and New York Herald Tribune reporter Maurice “Mickey” Carroll. On Sunday, Carroll witnessed local nightclub owner Jack Ruby shoot Oswald in the basement of police headquarters. One of Ruby’s exotic dancers, Joyce Gordon (aka Joy Dale) was among the first to be interviewed on television about her boss. The following day, noted philanthropist Ruth Altshuler was part of the Dallas County Grand Jury that indicted Jack Ruby for the murder. At Ruby’s trial in early 1964, KRLD-TV art director Charles Fisher served as a courtroom sketch artist. While Ruby was incarcerated at the Dallas County Jail, he was photographed by UPI freelance photographer Shelly Katz, who had previously covered Sen. John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign.

KRLD-TV art director Charles Fisher made this sketch of Jack Ruby and attorney Joe Tonahill during the 1964 Ruby trial. Charles Fisher Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Many local residents sought to memorialize President Kennedy and rehabilitate the Dallas image. Music teacher Dorothy G. Elliott wrote a choral piece, “A City Mourns (for John F. Kennedy),” and sent a copy of the sheet music to Mrs. Kennedy. Dallas Times Herald editor Bert Holmes championed the Goals for Dallas project, launched one year after the assassination, while social activist Marjorie Westberry founded a local chapter of the National Organization for Women. Noted architect Philip Johnson ultimately designed the city’s official memorial to President Kennedy. Architect and author Frank Welch extensively studied Johnson’s career and helped explain the meaning and significance of the John F. Kennedy Memorial. At the site of the assassination, many wanted the Texas School Book Depository torn down, though the building was ultimately preserved and a historical exhibit developed for the sixth floor. National Parks Service administrator Richard Sellars became an exhibit consultant and vocal supporter in the 1980s. In more recent years, SMU associate professor Dennis Simon worked with The Sixth Floor Museum on numerous occasions, including educational workshops exploring civil rights and the cultural impact of U.S. presidents.

Lingering questions about the death of President Kennedy inspired a generation of authors, filmmakers, and researchers. This year we lost Lincoln Endelman, who worked for two decades with Roland Zavada, a Kodak engineer who authenticated the Abraham Zapruder film. Author Jim Marrs wrote about that famous home movie in his 1989 bestseller, Crossfire, part of the basis for Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Included in Marrs’ book is the story of Bethesda Naval Medical Center petty officer Dennis David. His observations of President Kennedy’s casket on the night of the assassination became a point of controversy among researchers.

Everyone has a story to share, and we are grateful to these individuals for providing memories that will benefit students, researchers and historians around the world.  If you would like to add your voice to our ongoing Oral History Project, please contact OralHistory@jfk.org.