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Dealey Plaza Museum Offers an Unsettling View on History

  • Dealey Plaza can be seen clearly through a window at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas, adjacent to the window that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly used to assassinate President Kennedy, November 22, 1963. The actual snipers nest in closed off to the public. (Dallas Morning News - Barbara Davidson)

    Dealey Plaza can be seen clearly through a window at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas, adjacent to the window that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly used to assassinate President Kennedy, November 22, 1963. The actual snipers nest in closed off to the public. (Dallas Morning News - Barbara Davidson)

  • Dealey Plaza can be seen clearly through a window at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas, adjacent to the window that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly used to assassinate President Kennedy, November 22, 1963. The actual snipers nest in closed off to the public. (Dallas Morning News - Barbara Davidson)

Full disclosure: I am not a big fan of our 35th president.

Where others see charm, vision and political daring, I see serial philandering and questionable presidential accomplishments that may have been masked by the tragedy of his assassination.

All the more reason, then, that The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, is such a remarkable place.

I have visited the museum, not once but twice, and each encounter with the legacy of John F. Kennedy proved a profoundly moving experience.

The immediate appeal of The Sixth Floor Museum, of course, is that the exhibits are housed in the actual space where the murder of Kennedy was committed — the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building, overlooking what is now Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza.

Considering the amount of commercial development that has taken place in Dallas during the last 50 years, the Dealey Plaza of today has changed remarkably little since 1963.

So when I gazed out the windows of the museum to the streets below, I had an almost visceral reaction to the reality of an otherwise abstract historical event.

From that vantage point, the fleeting images of the famous Zapruder film seemed to stand before me with a tangible physical presence.

There is the grassy knoll. There is the curve in the road. There is the slight hill leading to the bridge that spans the Trinity River. Right there is the spot where Kennedy’s driver stepped on the gas and began his desperate race to Parkland Hospital.

From The Sixth Floor Museum, I felt that I was seeing in real time what Lee Harvey Oswald had seen decades ago. And because the Zapruder film is embedded in our collective consciousness, the sights below threatened to overwhelm my imagination with a surreal sensation of deja vu. It all seemed disturbingly familiar. To linger there too long was to almost feel complicit in Oswald’s crime.

The museum exhibits — some 40,000 items related to the assassination — are less haunting than the physical location, which includes the seventh floor of the former warehouse.

But they, too, shed light on the complex reality of Kennedy and the times in which he lived. Archival film clips, amateur home movies, sound recordings and a wealth of still images — not to mention documents and manuscripts, newspapers and magazines, and nearly 1,000 oral histories — bring to life the charisma, youthful exuberance and unabashed optimism for which Kennedy is most fondly remembered.

But they do so without devolving into mere sentimentality. The exhibits make clear that, had Kennedy’s life not been cut short, he would have faced the same social and political land mines that scarred Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

Given the strength of Kennedy’s political will and his popularity among the American public, it’s tempting to hope that JFK and America might have survived — or even avoided — the crucible of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the United States would have had a happier ending with Kennedy guiding us forward.

We’ll never know. And therein lies the power of The Sixth Floor Museum.

People, myself included, shed tears as they emerge from the museum.

It is impossible to spend time in the company of both Kennedy’s and Oswald’s ghosts and not feel the deep and perverse loss of all that might have been.

Editor’s note: For more information about The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, visit www.jfk.org. Diane Taylor is the calendar editor of the Valley News . She can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.

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