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The Precedent-Setting Possibilities of the New Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston

The "Lion of the Senate" may have been a special case, but it's not hard to imagine more senatorial libraries down the road.

EMK Institute

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate opens officially in Boston on Tuesday, sited right next door to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, overlooking the deep blue waters of Massachusetts Bay. Slanted and minimalist and purist white, the new structure seems at first like an extension of the museum honoring the late senator’s brother, so thoroughly has the architect Rafael Vinoly honored I.M. Pei, who designed the JFK complex.

Yet there is no mistaking, this is a major addition to the promontory known as Columbia Point in Boston’s Dorchester section. In addition to the institutions dedicated to the Kennedy brothers, the Massachusetts state archives and the Commonwealth Museum are located there, and the University of Massachusetts-Boston is transforming its adjacent campus with a flurry of new building. Visitors arrive by the busload to this area well south of downtown Boston. For a moment I was reminded of the memorial proliferation along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which has been so crowded with destinations, Congress has essentially banned any more.

The I.M. Pei-designed John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is visible behind the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. (Courtesy EMK Institute)

The presidential library is a particular institution. Tributes to power and personality, they make an architectural statement and are increasingly high-tech and user-friendly. They are destinations and have good visitor flows, though some critics argue they have drifted from the original mission, dating to FDR, as a repository for presidential papers. Already the wrangling has become heated over the site and shape of the Obama presidential library, which promises to be a highly designed complex in, in all likelihood, an urban setting in Chicago.

If there is concern about these taxpayer-supported projects being partisan ego-trips for sitting U.S. presidents, a similar institution for a U.S. senator is quite another matter. The backers of the Columbia Point complex opening tomorrow got around the notion that it was a tribute to Ted Kennedy by making the destination an interactive museum about the Senate.

The EMK Institute's replica of the chambers of the U.S. Senate. (Anthony Flint)

And a tribute to the institution of the Senate it is. The “immersive” experience is the result of a collaboration including Kennedy’s wife, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, and experiential designer Ed Schlossberg of ESI Design. Visitors are issued tablets and role-play by taking votes on a range of historical and hypothetical issues, from the Patriot Act to immigration. On the day of our visit teams of local high school students were strategizing in party caucuses, and preparing to enter the stunning replica, in the center of the museum, of the Senate chambers, with its dignified blue carpet, gold braid trim, and 100 polished dark wood desks in a semi-circle.

Compromise is a key message; there’s even a spot in the sequence of exhibits that allows visitors to do some horse-trading in the cloakroom. Kennedy was known for reaching across the aisle and striking grand bargains. The Institute for the U.S. Senate might be instantly nostalgic, however. As our group made its way past TV screens showing proceedings on C-SPAN, Washington was aghast that a group of lawmakers had written the leaders of Iran, the Department of Homeland Security was close to being cut off, and once again there was talk of a budget impasse and a government shutdown. Filibusters and refusals to confirm appointments rule the day now.

But while the focus is educating the citizenry about the importance of the Senate, there are also, inevitably, a number of rooms dedicated to Ted Kennedy the man, “the Lion of the Senate.” A touchscreen console answers information on Kennedy’s four-decade-plus career, surrounded by rows of signed pictures worthy of a wall at The Palm. A meticulous recreation of his office at the U.S. Capitol is adorned with model ships, framed newspaper articles, photos of sailboats and toothy white smiles, and a road sign from Ireland.

Kennedy might be an outlier and a special case, but who knows what future politicians might be the subject of similar honors. Universities tend to be the places where such institutes and centers find a home—there’s a Bob Dole Institute at the University of Kansas, for example—but it might not be long before we start seeing full-fledged, standalone senatorial libraries. Cities could come to view them as visitor destinations, and clamor for them. Who needs a casino, minor-league baseball stadium, or convention center, when the hometown Congressman is a box-office draw?

The possibilities are endless, but there’s one thing I’m sure of. The Mitch McConnell Coal Institute might be welcomed as a boon for downtown Louisville. But you can be sure it would have a big parking lot. And there won’t be any solar panels.

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