Exhibits on US presidents divide

WASHINGTON • On the first full day in which Mr Barack Obama officially became the former president, visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture paused at the end of a sprawling exhibition titled A Journey To Freedom. After navigating multiple ramps, rooms and interactive displays detailing the struggle of African-Americans dating to the 15th century, they reached a display honouring Mr Obama.

"It's not enough," said Mr Tony Prokop, 57, a teacher from Delaware. "There's certainly more to do for Obama. But just to have one showcase here for the impact he's made? I'm looking at some of the other people here and the doors that they've opened along the way. This guy kicked the door down."

Though he is a lifelong Republican who voted for Mr Donald Trump in November last year, Mr Prokop said he would have voted for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont if he had won the Democratic nomination.

As for Mr Obama, he cited "missed opportunities, especially in the areas of race", as part of his rationale for supporting Mr Trump. While he expressed optimism about the new administration, he expressed disappointment in the inauguration speech.

A 1989 photograph of Mr Donald Trump at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"I didn't think there was much new," Mr Prokop said. "This didn't reach out to anybody other than the people he already connected with."

A glass case in the exhibit holds scores of campaign buttons from Mr Obama's presidential races on its left side and magazine covers on the right - five from Time magazine alone - featuring the former president and the former first lady, Mrs Michelle Obama, through the years.

In the centre, the dress Mrs Obama wore at the event marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was placed prominently, along with a signed copy of Mr Obama's speech marking the occasion.

Some visitors on this typically busy Saturday, such as students on field trips, whizzed by the display. Other attendees stopped, stared and reflected, some stroking their chins, some shaking their heads.

One woman was visibly emotional. She declined to be interviewed because she was "having trouble processing".

Another visitor, Ms Sonia Gonzalez, 31, had travelled from Brooklyn to participate in the Women's March last Saturday. "I think it's just really something that you can look at and say that we've come a long way," she said.

Others were less complimentary towards the former president.

"I didn't agree with what Obama stood for," said Mr Phillip Stange, a 38-year-old Trump supporter who drove six hours from Virginia to attend his inauguration. "So I'm glad he's out of office."

A few blocks away, at the National Portrait Gallery, a photo of Mr Trump from 1989 greeted viewers near an entrance doorway, situated next to prints of actress Halle Berry and children's show host Fred Rogers.

The picture, taken by Michael O'Brien, was used as a Fortune magazine cover and then again for Mr Trump's second book, Trump: Surviving At The Top. It shows Mr Trump throwing an apple in the air with his right hand and resting his left on his hip.

At the African-American museum, the placement of the display honouring Mr Obama was intended to express the end of a journey.

Mr Trump's photo is installed near the National Portrait Gallery's entrance, a beginning of sorts, one floor below a room that holds a portrait of every single president, save Mr Obama, whose portrait will be there soon.

The gallery is said to be the only building with a complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. Mr Trump's portrait will share a room with George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's someday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Exhibits on US presidents divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe