Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
CANTON, OHIO – Whichever side you may be on regarding Measure M and the Arcata Plaza’s statue, the McKinley Presidential Museum and Library agrees with you. Like many here in Arcata, the staff there holds America’s 25th president in high regard, and at the same time, doesn’t want Arcata’s statue.
The museum doesn’t need it (even though it has a fairly sweet spot to put it, if it had to), as explained to the Union last April by Director Joyce Yut. “We have our own statues,” she said.
And so much more. The elegant facility in a suburban/commercial area of Canton, Ohio has all the gravitas you’d expect of a scrupulously maintained, ever-improving presidential museum – huge helpings of history, engaging interactive exhibits, scholarly archives and tons of stimulation and science to occupy children, with a discovery museum, planetarium and gift shop.
Unexpectedly, a Focault Pendulum is among the first sights one sets eyes on walking through the front door. As advertised, the facility offers “a scientific journey through past, present and future.”
Towering above it all on an adjacent hilltop is the McKinley Monument, which houses the remains of William and Ida McKinley and their two daughters.
The entire complex is managed by the Stark County Historical Society, whose history, industry, technology and culture is celebrated in extensive exhibits on the museum’s second floor. Though the overall theme is human progress, there are vintage vehicles in mint condition, plus numerous other period pieces. In one room, enclosed within wall cases of electric train models, a sprawling railroad run that took five craftsmen 11 years to assemble travels across typical Ohio towns meticulously recreated in miniature.
The area’s first people – Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Pattawatima, Miami, Eel River, Wea, Kickapoo, Plankeshaw, Kaskaskia, Muncie, Erie and Iriquois – are present in a historic display, including an array of arrowheads.
Also good for extended interest is the museum’s Street of Shops – a complete downtown from McKinley’s era. There’s a hotel, bar, gas station, fire station, barber shop – even a newspaper office, all lavishly appointed with authentic decor and tools of the trade, and lots of them.
But McKinley is the big-name draw, and his life is elegantly observed in a large room populated with a range of pieces from different periods of his life. In the vast McKinley Gallery, the martyred president’s family, professional and government services lives are laid out in the actual furniture and furnishings of his home and offices, including the White House. The desks he used as a dashing young attorney and later as stolid statesman, on which legislation was crafted and signed, are there, as are personal mementos and gifts from heads of state.
Amid the panoply stands McKinley himself, with wife Ida seated beside him. Make a selection (offerings include “Front Porch Campaign,” “Civil War” and “Pan-American Exposition”) on a push-button control panel, and the two come to life with audioanimatronic husband-wife banter. The couple’s gesticulations, head tilts and blinking eyes are as good (and as kitschy and uncanny valley-eerie) as anything Disney has to offer.
In one, Ida cautions the president to listen to his advisors, who aren’t enthused about him exposing himself to danger in a public reception line at the coming world’s fair. But, noting that he survived the Civil War, McKinley states that “There is nothing to fear from the American citizens who disagree with me politically.”
Cabinets show off a wealth of McKinley artifacts, from campaign swag to Ida’s diamond tiara, sold to the museum at cost for $42,000 by Rick Harrison of Pawn Stars.
Bounding about the museum with unbridled enthusiasm is Museum Guide Carl Patron. A fount of McKinley information, he rejoices in the details of the museum’s displays, and has lots of stories to tell about the fascinating “William.”
While the furniture pieces exude the history that was made on their surfaces, and the exquisite memorabilia can hold one‘s attention for as long as one may have to spend, it’s downstairs in the archives that the real story of McKinley is to be found.
That’s where serious scholars go to mine history, aided by Archivist Mark G. Holland. He and the staff make accessible the Ramsayer Research Library’s troves of documents, photographs and exhibits in a comfortable learning environment.
Everyone at the museum, from the admission window to the gift shop has heard of the California town about to give its statue of McKinley the thumbs up or the heave-ho, and of the recent vandalism to the historic piece of public art. They’re dismayed at the museum’s raison d’être being cast as a villain, and lament what they see as the erasure of the history they work daily to nurture and project.
One hundred and eight steps up the hill stands the McKinley Monument, an imposing domed structure completed in 1907. Interred within are the McKinleys, Willliam and Ida, and their daughters.
Alone in the rotunda on a stormy day, under the rain-washed dome with the entombed McKinleys in their elevated, granite double sarcophagus, one can’t help but feel the weight of history. The surreal solemnity of the site contrasts dramatically with the furious debate in progress back in Arcata.
Inscribed around the base of the dome is a line from the last speech the nation-building president gave before his death, one as relevant to contemporary politics as international relations: “Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict, and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not war.”
Learn more about the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum at mckinleymuseum.com.