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Yesterday, Today at the LBJ

Written by , published October 28, 2014

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Whatever your political persuasion—or lack thereof—the recently reimagined LBJ Presidential Library provides a colorful journey into an influential era of change.

Our December issue features the state’s three presidential libraries, among them the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. Growing up in Houston, I recall the big hoopla when the first presidential library in Texas opened in Austin in 1971. When my sister graduated from UT-Austin two years later, our family piled into my dad’s new car, a cushy Mercury Marquis, to pick her up. My father, a political history buff, insisted on paying a visit to the LBJ Library, which was free admission, a plus for our family of six. As a pre-teen, I couldn’t have been more bored. All I remember seeing was a bunch of papers and some black-and-white photos under glass cases, and lots of beige and brown walls.

Recently, I decided to revisit the LBJ Library to see the exhibit Sixty from the ’60s. I’m still not a huge fan of politics or history, but the groundbreaking events and pop culture from my childhood have always fascinated me. The place has greatly changed from my last visit, and had completed a major renovation in December 2012. Admission is no longer free, but the depth and breadth of exhibits and displays are well worth the cost of entry.

Besides Sixty from the ’60s, which runs through January 4 and showcases a diverse range of objects from the people, events, and ideas popularized in the Sixties—from astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s headset to Hugh Hefner’s silk pajamas—the permanent collection contains a treasure trove of memorabilia—personal as well as political—from the Johnson presidency. GS 0161

LBJ’s 1968 black stretch limousine greets you as you walk in. Also nearby is an animatronic, talking LBJ standing behind a podium reciting humorous quips from a few of his speeches. Even the presidential timeline on the wall contains some interesting nuggets, such as a letter of apology signed by the Smothers Brothers for their negative portrayals of LBJ on their TV show. On the upper floor, there’s also the obligatory replica of the Oval Office—LBJ’s had three televisions side-by-side, for each of the networks broadcasting back then. The First Lady, Lady Bird’s office is also well represented. With its stylish-mod décor complete with cherry-red tufted upholstery, the office could easily double as a set design for Mad Men or a chic modern space now. A stunning panorama of a changing Austin can be seen from the windows here. The White House china, designed by Lady Bird, depicts two large Texas bluebonnets, a nod to her devotion to the beautification of highways and parkland. 

This past summer I visited Washington, D.C., and toured the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, namely for 20th-Century artifacts like Archie Bunker’s chair and Dorothy‘s ruby slippers. (For me, it’s like the Louvre for pop-culture nerds!) Combined with the well-rounded, well-curated displays from Sixty from the ’60s and the vast and varied permanent collection, I felt that the LBJ Library was definitely on par with the Smithsonian’s 1960s section, if not more so, as a visual guide to the trends and newsmakers of a colorful and tumultuous era.

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