Visiting the JFK Library in search of the President’s rescue coconut

Coconut on President John F. Kennedy's Desk. Image: JFK Library, KN-C23153.

The coconut on President John F. Kennedy’s Desk. Image: JFK Library, KN-C23153.

After the Battle of the Coral Sea Commemoration dinner on the USS Intrepid, I was up early and on the train to Boston and the John F. Kennedy Presidental Library and Museum.

I seem to have bad luck visiting this northern city, teaming rain, windy, 6 degrees (celsius) – just like my last three visits! Bad to worse, the train ran late by half an hour and when I arrived at the JFK Library for my meeting with Karen Abramson, Head of Archives, building works nearby had cut their cable to the outside world. So, with no computers, no phones, and no voicemail, the friendly docent (US word for volunteer) at Reception did not have any mobile numbers, couldn’t look them up and didn’t have access to ‘go fetch’ Karen, and the security officer didn’t have a radio and couldn’t leave his post.

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Misenum in miniature

Misenum in miniature. An up close look at the diorama created by Geoff Barnes and Roger Scott for <em>Escape from Pompeii</em>. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Misenum in miniature. An up close look at the diorama created by Geoff Barnes and Roger Scott for Escape from Pompeii. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, sealing nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum into time capsules that would not be reopened for many centuries, and which have been incredibly rich historical and romantic resources for today’s world.

The eruption was clearly visible from the Roman navy’s major port-city of Misenum, along the coast at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. In response, the admiral of the fleet, Pliny the Elder, ordered his ships to go to the rescue. It is one of the first recorded attempted rescues of civilians by sea by a military force.

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A museum of dioramas

A diorama from the independence museum in Bali, Indonesia

A diorama from the independence museum in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Jeffrey Mellefont

On a recent trip to Indonesia I was struck by how many museums were based around dioramas. Rather than how we usually think of museums — as a display of things from the past (objects) with labels and text — many Indonesian museums are solely based around snapshots of history, with no objects in sight. They are examples of how museum-makers quite literally construct the past for their audiences.

We often think of dioramas as an outmoded, old-fashioned display method. But in Indonesia they are quite an accepted way of communicating stories. Many tell a sanctioned, official version of history. But I was surprised by just how popular they are with audiences.

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Exploring a diorama: The RAN Bridging Train at Suvla Bay during the Gallipoli Campaign

“These men took pride in the fact they were the only Australian naval unit serving in the European theatre of war … They were therefore bent on proving to the Royal Navy and the Army that they could overcome any difficulties”.
CMDR L. S. Bracegirdle, RN, commanding the Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train at Gallipoli, 16 November 1915

One of the most popular parts of the War at Sea – The Navy in WWI exhibition at the museum is a wonderfully old-school diorama. It has no bells or whistles. You can’t swipe, touch or play with it — apart from a series of buttons that light up various sections. But everyone — even the ‘walk through’ visitor — stops and checks it out.

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