A new experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum provides a group lesson in foreign policy
by Mira Cohen
Editor’s Note: The Situation Room experience is receiving a MUSE Award from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) this year. The three-hour experience is available by advance reservation only and is targeted to educational and corporate groups.
Photos courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
When the Conference Room and the Secure Video Transmission Site from the Situation Room at the White House were dismantled in 2006, all contents including furnishings, carpet squares, microphone, video equipment, the famous wood paneling and presidential seal were boxed, crated and sent to the George W. Bush Library. In a joint agreement with the Bush Library, the Reagan Library was able to receive the Secure Video Transmission Site with the Conference Room remaining in place at the Bush Library.
Once the Secure Video Transmission Site or “Command Center” was re-installed at the Reagan Library, we faced numerous choices. Were we going to share the space behind the traditional red velvet roped stanchion and allow visitors to view the space? Were we going to share the stories of what had happened throughout history in the space? We could film movies sharing stories including first-person interviews, have docents share stories, set up kiosks with games individuals could play interacting with the stories from the space in a single-player manner. We could have an app with pictures and scenes and storytelling from the past as well.
Duke Blackwood, the Director of the Reagan Library, chose to go in a very different direction .
The scenario for the experience is the day President Reagan was shot in 1981, 70 days into his presidency. Not only was President Reagan in the hospital but the Vice President did not have proven access to a secure line of communication for about two hours. This left the crisis management team, which had rushed to the White House, both in shock and without a clearly drawn chain of command. Synchronously the press needed to scramble to pull the story together on the ground, sometimes getting it wrong. Then National Security adviser Richard Allen had tape recorded the entire day and through the transcript (an open document) we had access to each of the major decisions discussed and made during that eight-hour period. Additional guidance was provided by film footage from the day, biographies, and other sources. Documents from our National Archives collection are also integrated in 450+ pages of text that were written into a database game format.
Believe in the past; communicate with the future
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, a nonpartisan federal institution in Simi Valley, California is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration. In crafting a visitor experience for educational audiences, the Reagan Library drew inspiration from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library. At the opening of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library, President Roosevelt stated, “It must believe in the past. It must believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain judgment in creating their own future.”
FDR, the father of presidential libraries was then intending to create an institution which would straddle the study of history with an eye towards future generations. This raises the question – how does a presidential museum both tell stories from the past and embrace the future? How do the demands for attendance, engagement, design and contemporary technology in a museum merge with the needs of a presidential archive to preserve and protect valuable artifacts and documents – the real and authentic stuff of history?
And how, as each presidency recedes into the realm of history, do we continue to tell the powerful stories of the person and the administration while providing a visitor experience that is both authentic and current as well as engaging to new audiences?
In some cases, the decisions have been based on including newer technology and technological tools in exhibits – in the forms of kiosks, table games, apps, and audio guides. The theory behind this concept is that technology is new and changing the method of telling the story will appeal to younger audiences. In some cases, the choice has been to build a more modern facility relying on the architecture of the structure to wow audiences into attendance.
This also brings up the question of the presidential library – do you tell a chronological story of an American President and his (maybe one day her) life or do you highlight major issues and decisions, and focal points from a presidency? The latter was the choice made by George W. Bush and his team. At the center of the Bush Library experience is the Decision Points Theater where individuals respond to questions about major policy decisions from the Bush Administration at shared kiosks. Individual decisions are then ranked in relation to decisions made by others playing synchronously at their stations.
Our vision was to place participants in a contemporized fictional story. The story would be based on the past, but not identical to the past. Additionally, we chose to focus on the decision-making process, the group dynamic, with the look from the past and the feel of the present. For the presidential library model, this choice was a significant departure from the norm. What resulted was the Situation Room Experience at the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush Presidential Libraries. The Situation Room Experience was designed in Simi Valley, CA and installed in both locations.
Drawing upon the success of the Discovery Center at the Reagan Library which opened in 2008 with an initial target audience of fifth graders, we decided to focus the experience on meeting contemporary learning objectives for high school – creating building blocks of field trip experiences at varying levels. The entire story-telling framework now hangs on the educational framework created for the game. What results is the controlled chaos of a newsroom at work, a crisis management team in action and an experience which is completely devoid of proctoring and facilitation for 75 minutes of play. The participants run the show and the outcome of 40 different decisions made either individually, or by the group depending on the group dynamics, determine the outcome of the game and multiple points throughout.
Creating an educationally driven experience in a museum means providing a meaningful event that meets the needs of current teaching standards especially at the high school level. Doing so makes it easy for administrators and districts to say “yes” to allowing the trip away from school and all that is involved in making this happen (e.g. excusing groups of students from many classes for a day and providing substitutes for each attending educator). Identifying, let alone meeting standards, can be challenging in an environment when standards vary from state to state and are in flux. We developed the learning goals for our simulation knowing that California standards were being reviewed for adoption. In consultation with a highly talented team of hand-picked educational advisory board members including teachers, site-based administrators, district-level administrators and a graduate school professor, we drew up a set of objectives:
• Engage in evidence-based reasoning to solve a real-world problem
• Source multiple materials in real time under pressure
• Inquire about the validity and reliability of information
• Engage in self-directed collaborative decision making
• Feel immersed in a real-world crisis scenario
• Use a variety of 21st century tools and platforms
The remarkable thing about all of these learning objectives is they meet trends in educational theory and direction and also provide opportunities for experiences that can be best designed for museums and other cultural venues. Full immersion, including the installation of permanent sets and high level of technological integration into the space, cannot be duplicated in a classroom environment. One major surprise for the team is that we have since discovered that the experience is scalable for university as well as executive and community groups.
Building the immersive experience
To build and produce the experience, we assembled an exceptional and nimble design team including Greg Anderson, Artistic Director, Trey Alsup, Writer and Game Designer, and from SenovvA – Curtis Kelly, Experiential Designer, Coty Shipe, Chief Engineer, and Lauren Kelly Sheridan, Head of Software Development.
One of our goals and challenges was to preserve the historical architecture of the Situation Room while integrating contemporary technology. (After all, the reason for retiring the Situation Room in 2006 in the first place was to technologically update the space.) We did not want to interfere with the original architecture, so multiple decisions had to be made. In one case, the team from SenovvA was able to integrate the microphones from the original Situation Room into the experience. In another case, we slipped computer screens into the spaces where old CRT screens used to live. In yet another instance, modern teleconferencing equipment was hidden seamlessly into the “Command Center” wall while keeping in place the actual camera formerly used in the space.
Reports show that presidential libraries primarily draw visitors from outside of their local communities. One opportunity these kinds of in-depth (three hours, in this case) experiences provide is to draw local audiences as well as audiences from outside the local area. Having an unmatched experience or scheduled event is one way to encourage people to make the trip and to generate return visitors as well.
Since the Situation Room experience opened in August 2017, groups who have visited the museum are already scheduling to return next year.
The Situation Room Experience has taught us that getting students to engage and immerse themselves in the past is the best way for them to apply history’s main lessons to their own futures. • • •
Mira Cohen is Director of Education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum and Project Manager of the Situation Room Experience. She spearheads all educational installations and creates and implements strategy and design for educational programs and projects. She pushes the boundaries of this passion with cutting-edge theories on education, game development and technological innovation. She previously taught high school and middle school and created curriculum and educational strategy for companies and organizations such as CNN, CraniaMania, UCLA and the Zimmer Children’s Museum. Mira holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College and a Master of Education degree from the University of Maryland, College Park where she wrote her thesis on simulations in education.