And a Little Child Shall Lead Them (at Least at This Museum)
THE NEW YORK TIMES, By LAUREL GRAEBER
A recreated Oval Office in “I Approve This Message,” a new exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.
In one of the country’s most fraught, contentious and bitterly polarizing presidential election years, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which the person about to enter the Oval Office inspires unequivocal support.
But that’s happening now, though not on Pennsylvania Avenue. On West 83rd Street in Manhattan, a presidential desk awaits a member of a group almost all Americans love: their children.
Complete with a photographic backdrop of the Oval Office, this desk adorns “I Approve This Message,” an exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan that centers on the autograph collection of Fred B. Tarter, a businessman who died last year. His family has lent the museum his documents, including the signatures of all 44 presidents, from Washington to Barack Obama, as well as those of some first ladies.
“We wanted to get our visitors — parents and children — excited about the election,” said Ellen Bari, the show’s curator. “And to do it in a different way, one that wasn’t political.”
The challenge was to make the material accessible to those ages 2 to 10. Ms. Bari introduced the recreated Oval Office, where small visitors can “sign” and stamp laminated papers and talk on a strange instrument: a rotary telephone. The exhibition also offers a “Wall for Autographs of Future Presidents,” a White House jigsaw puzzle and a miniature voting booth for deciding such momentous questions as cheese versus pepperoni pizza. It’s not exactly citizenship, but “there’s a sense of making a choice,” Ms. Bari said.
Yet this is a show whose greatest rewards are for young readers. The artifacts, often framed with presidential portraits or photographs, include a handwritten document by Lincoln from his days as a lawyer, and one by Jefferson — in English, Spanish, French and Dutch — granting a ship permission to sail. A wall text explains that a James Madison document is unusual because it concerns land sold to a woman. Sharp-eyed children may notice that John Tyler could have used spell check.
One of the most historic presidential letters on display is also the tersest: Nixon’s resignation. A text succinctly explains Watergate, with Ford’s pardon of Nixon below it.
The artist Leah Tinari has contributed a less weighty highlight, presidential portraits inscribed with sometimes quirky facts. Did you know that Woodrow Wilson was dyslexic, or that Calvin Coolidge had a raccoon?
Amid the humor, though, the show reveals that the presidency is a position of the utmost seriousness. That’s a message that we can all approve.
(Through Dec. 31 at 212 West 83rd Street; 212-721-1223, cmom.org.)
A version of this article appears in print on October 14, 2016, on page C26 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘I Approve This Message’.