History of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum (1990)

2006 Update:

The Ford Presidential Library and Museum have continued to evolve in major ways since the survey below was written in 1990.

At the Library, research opportunities and usage have grown with: major acquisitions such as Defense Secretary Melvin Laird's papers; the implementation of an aggressive declassification program for national security materials; the expansion of research grants programs; and new programs for undergraduate and high school AP instruction. In 2005, the Library launched an Ann Arbor-based exhibits and speakers program with funding from the Gerald R. Ford Foundation.

At the Museum, the core exhibits were completely redesigned as part of a major building expansion completed in 1997. This has allowed for a more ambitious program of changing feature exhibits and events. Expanded funding from the Gerald R. Ford Foundation has been pivotal in these efforts.

1990 History:

The Gerald R. Ford Library is essentially like the other presidential libraries in terms of holdings, clientele, staff, and programs. There is, however, one substantial difference.

President Ford is the first president to separate the two major functions associated with presidential libraries. His archives is in Ann Arbor, on the campus of his alma mater The University of Michigan, while his museum is in Grand Rapids in his old congressional district.

In his letter of December 13, 1976, to the president of The University of Michigan and the Archivist of the United States, President Gerald R. Ford donated papers and other historical materials of his years in public life to the federal government for preservation in the state of Michigan. By so doing, he became the first president to give his historical materials to the people of the United States while still in office.

On January 20, 1977, inauguration day for Jimmy Carter, shipment of Ford's papers to a University of Michigan warehouse in Ann Arbor was begun. There an experienced staff of federal archivists, headed by William J. Stewart, began sorting and processing the papers.

Funds for the construction of the library and museum were raised through the efforts of the Gerald Ford Commemorative Committee, the University of Michigan, the State of Michigan, Kent County, and the City of Grand Rapids. There were more than 14,000 individual donors.

A site on the North Campus of the University, now 1000 Beal Avenue, adjacent to the Bentley Historical Library (Michigan Historical Collections), was selected for the Library. Ground was broken in January 1979 and President Ford participated in ceremonies marking the laying of the cornerstone in June of that year. Construction of the Library was overseen by a building committee headed by Robert M. Warner, director of the Bentley Library, who later became Archivist of the United States. The building was occupied by Ford Library staff in July of 1980, although formal dedication of the $4.2 million building did not take place until April 1981.

At the ceremony Benno C. Schmidt, a spokesman for the donors, presented the building to the University. Immediately upon accepting the building, University President Harold Shapiro assigned it to the National Archives as "tenants in perpetuity." Jickling, Lyman and Powell Associates of Birmingham, Michigan, architects of the neighboring Bentley Library, designed the Ford Library to harmonize with the Bentley and other North Campus architecture while meeting archival requirements. It is a low-lying two-story pale red brick and bronze-tinted glass structure. The architectural focal point of the interior is a spacious two-story lobby opening onto an outdoor plaza. Through a window wall one can watch the hypnotic movement of two large stainless steel triangles, a kinetic sculpture created for the Ford Library by noted sculptor George Rickey. The lobby features a grand staircase with a glass-supported bronze railing under a large skylight. The building as a whole was designed to be highly functional as well as attractive. The interior is finished in natural red oak with abundant natural lighting.

In addition to the lobby, which contains an exhibit on the development and use of the Library, other public areas include a multi-purpose auditorium which seats 165, meeting rooms, a manuscripts research room, and a specially equipped audiovisual research room. The office maintained for President Ford's use during visits to the Library may be viewed.

Work areas include special temperature and humidity controlled storage space for paper records, a cold storage vault for long- term preservation of audiovisual materials, a high security vault and security system, a fully equipped preservation and reproduction laboratory for audiovisual materials, as well as staff offices.

The original shipment of papers totaled 8,500 cubic feet. By 1990 the total, reflecting new acquisitions as well as disposal activity, was approximately 9,350 cubic feet or 18,700,000 pages. In addition to Ford's own congressional, vice presidential, and presidential papers, there are the files of more than 100 White House advisors and staff assistants, the President Ford Committee 1976 campaign records, and the personal papers of Mrs. Ford and others associated with the President, such as Federal Reserve Board chairman Arthur Burns, press secretary Ron Nessen, political pollster Robert Teeter, and energy advisor Frank Zarb. A select group of federal government records (including those from the Council of Economic Advisors and the President's Commission on Olympic Sports) have been placed in the Ford Library because of their relevance to other Library holdings. Ford's congressional and vice presidential papers were opened to research in July of 1981. Portions of the presidential papers (nearly five million pages) were made available to scholars on April 5, 1982. Additional material is opened for research as it is arranged, reviewed, and described by Library archivists. More than 60% of the Library's holdings are now available for use by researchers.

In 1986 the Ford Library was chosen to test the prototype of an automation system for manuscript processing and reference for the presidential libraries. PRESNET, as the system is called, allows archivists to provide researchers with a search of the database in a matter of minutes. To date, descriptions of approximately 90% of the open holdings have been entered into the database.

The audiovisual holdings contain 314,800 still photographs, 1265 hours of videotapes, 800,000 feet of film, and 2,100 hours of audiotape. This resource is used both by on-site researchers and extensively by mail and telephone requestors.

More than 3000 researchers, averaging four daily visits each, have conducted research at the Library since the collections were opened. United States domestic and foreign policy and party politics in the mid-1970s are the main subject focus of the collections. Gerald Ford's private life and public career since his election to Congress in 1948 are collateral topics.

Library archivists provide reference advice and assistance to U.S. and overseas scholars, college students, high school teachers and students, journalists, freelance writers, and interested citizens. In 1989 archivists furnished nearly 5,000 boxes of files, prepared over 15,000 pages of reproductions, and answered more than 1200 oral and written queries.

Archivists conduct a senior level history course at the University of Michigan and hold a variety of instructional programs and workshops for area college and high school history, political science, and archives courses. Special talks and guided tours are available for school, civic and other groups. Talks are tailored to each groups's interests.

The 44,000 square foot sleek two-story triangular museum, which was built at a cost of $11 million including site preparation, was designed by Marvin DeWinter Associates of Grand Rapids. Also instrumental in the planning of the Museum was the Gerald R. Ford Commemorative Committee chaired by Jordan Sheperd. The Museum is the pivotal attraction in a 20-acre park complex along the west bank of the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids. Dedicated in September 1981 with a gala celebration attended by President and Mrs. Reagan, the Museum has a 300-foot glass wall providing a panoramic view of the river and the skyline of Grand Rapids. A reflecting pool and fountain welcomes visitors at the front entrance and a broad pedestrian bridge links the Museum with downtown hotels and shops.

The main exhibition floor is devoted to President Ford's life and career and to the nature of the presidency. Candid photographs of Gerald Ford and his family also offer the visitor a view of the man at informal moments. A full-scale replica of the Oval Office, furnished as it was when Gerald Ford was president, is one of the highlights of the Museum. Special exhibits on the 1976 bicentennial and the role of Mrs. Ford are also popular.

Visitors can see gifts presented by heads of state and other foreign dignitaries, as well as personal gifts to President Ford from the American people. An award-winning film, "Gerald R. Ford: The Presidency Restored," is shown every hour in the Museum's auditorium. The Museum also offers a program of changing exhibits, sometimes borrowed from other institutions such as the Smithsonian, to enhance its permanent displays.

In addition to exhibit areas, the Museum houses an auditorium seating 280 persons, a sales desk area, staff offices, special museum storage for the permanent collection, and exhibit preparation areas.

The Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum have been active in sponsoring scholarly conferences and community activities, often in conjunction with other organizations such as The University of Michigan and the Domestic Policy Association. Much of the funding for these events comes from the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, a non-profit organization which also awards grants-in-aid of up to $2000 to researchers who use the Ford Library archival holdings, publishes a newsletter twice a year reporting on the activities of the Library and Museum, sponsors the William E. Simon Lectures in Public Affairs, and awards journalism prizes for excellence in reporting on the presidency and defense issues.

In February 1983, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were co-chairmen of the first in a series of presidential conferences on the public and public policy. The meeting capped a national program to improve communication between government and the people. In the fall of 1982 three former press secretaries and three prestigious national journalists joined President Ford to discuss the role of the press in shaping the nation's perception of the president. A symposium on "Modern First Ladies: Private Lives and Public Duties," held in April 1984 at the Museum brought together members of several former "first families" and was covered by more than 200 reporters from around the country.

In 1985, President Ford called on the nation's foremost scholars and political party leaders to brainstorm about reforming the way America nominates its presidents. The experts, after two days at the Ford Library, generated many recommendations which resulted in a publication by the Gerald R. Ford Foundation through the American Enterprise Institute entitled Before Nomination--Our Primary Problems, edited by George Grassmuck.

The Library was the site of the taping of a series of programs on "The Presidency and the Constitution" broadcast on public television in 1987, and of the gathering of representatives of 44 countries for an All-Democracies Conference in December 1988. Other conferences sponsored by the Library and Museum may have been more educational, but none has been more entertaining than the "Humor and the Presidency" conference held at the Museum in the fall of 1986. It brought together well-known comedians, columnists, politicians, press secretaries, and political cartoonists to explore all areas of the topic. Receiving heavy press coverage, including appearances by President Ford and Chevy Chase on the morning television news programs, the event was a huge success. The conference was taped for later broadcast on HBO.

The Museum has established a strong commitment to involvement in the community affairs of Grand Rapids. Annual programs at the Museum include the "Great Decisions Lecture Series" which brings in guest speakers on selected foreign policy topics and features audience discussion and the filling out of opinion ballots; an association with the Close Up Foundation, an organization promoting student awareness of public issues; sponsorship of Citizens Bee, a high school level program devoted to history and political affairs; and the American Political Film Series, the presentation of eight often controversial motion pictures each year, which have attracted audiences of up to 300 people. At Christmastime, area youth are invited to participate in the making of ornaments for the large tree in the Museum lobby. The Museum staff also conducts teacher in-service workshops for school districts in Western Michigan.

Both the Library and Museum have active volunteer programs. At the Museum the docents serve as tour guides and assist with special events. The Library volunteers work with manuscript collections as well as showing visitors around the building. The Gerald R. Ford Library, with its University of Michigan affiliation, and the Museum, with its close ties to the community of Grand Rapids, are uniquely able to fulfill the dual mission of the presidential libraries system.


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Mackaman, Frank H. "Human Drama: Presidential Museums Tell the Story." Prologue, Summer 1989

Rohrer, Karen B. "'If there was anything you forgot to ask ...' the Papers of Betty Ford." Prologue, Summer 1987.

Schick, Frank. Records of the Presidency: Presidential Papers and Libraries from Washington to Reagan. Oryx Press: 1989

Tobin, Leesa. "Betty Ford as First Lady: A Woman for Women." Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4, Fall 1990.

Veit, Fritz. Presidential Libraries and Collections. Greenwood Press, 1987.

Warner, Robert M. "The Prologue is Past." American Archivist, January 1978.