Open house set Nov. 12 for new McConnell-Chao archive
A permanent gallery with exhibits, films and interactive displays about U.S. government, history and politics will open to the public Nov. 12 in the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library.
The Civic Education Gallery is part of the new Sen. Mitch McConnell and Secretary Elaine L. Chao Archives, a 7,000-square-foot section of the library’s lower level that houses the collected papers and personal memorabilia of the two. The archives will have an open house of the gallery with guided tours Nov. 12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Regular hours will be the same as those of Ekstrom Library.
McConnell is Senate GOP leader and Kentucky’s longest-serving senator. He began his Senate career in 1984. Chao, his wife, is former labor secretary under President George W. Bush. She also has served as director of United Way and head of the U.S. Peace Corps.
At a private dedication ceremony for the archives Nov. 11, Louisville philanthropist David Jones surprised everyone by taking the podium and announcing something that wasn't on the program.
Jones said he was giving UofL $1 million for the archives and handed the gift to President James Ramsey on the spot.
"I want everyone to know that this gift was not solicited," Jones said.
Choking back tears, Jones said his son had been seriously wounded while fighting in the Gulf War and McConnell "was there for me and my family, and I'll never forget it."
The gallery displays are designed not only to tell McConnell's and Chao's stories but also to educate visitors. They have such memorabilia as McConnell's boyhood books, his baseball mitt and stats and a high school campaign flyer, as well as Chao family photos and commendations.
It also has 10 wall panels that are devoted to such topics as the U.S. constitution, the Senate, immigration, the president's cabinet and other topics, said curator and archivist Deborah Skaggs.
Using McConnell's and Chao's stories to educate about broader subjects also is the goal of two 10-minute videos on the senator and secretary, and interactive kiosks.
At one kiosk, visitors can watch real campaign commercials, listen to political analysts explain the purpose of the ads and rate them on how well they met those goals, she said.
At another, they can walk a step in Chao’s shoes by taking a sample U.S. citizenship test. Chao came to the United States as an 8-year-old who spoke no English.
"The whole focus is to educate," said Skaggs, who not only is a UofL alumna, but also was one of the first archivists at the University Archives and Records Center in the mid-1970s.
"We are part of the university," she said, noting that the archive hopes to "educate people of all ages."
"Sixth, 8th and 11th graders in high school all have American history," she said. "We hope teachers bring their students down to see exhibits and use it as an educational resource. We hope families will come and use this, especially not only as the front face of the archives, but also to see how these two important Kentuckians who have a strong association with the university have made a difference."
McConnell’s and Chao’s papers are housed in a sealed, climate-controlled room. They fill hundreds of boxes.
Skaggs said she doesn't know how long it will take to fully process them for use.
Both UofL and the University of Kentucky submitted proposals for the gallery and archives.
McConnell selected UofL because he “felt comfortable housing them at his hometown university and one of his alma maters,” spokesman Robert Steurer said when the site was announced earlier this year.
The senator graduated from UofL’s College and Arts and Sciences in 1964 and was student body president as an undergraduate. In 1991, he established the McConnell Center at the university. The nonpartisan academic program prepares students to become future leaders.
Between 1998 and 2008, McConnell secured more than $320 million dollars for research and infrastructure projects at Kentucky universities, including more than $150 million for UofL.
The university is soliciting private donations to pay for the facility.