Wax museum makes room for all the presidents
George W. Bush is surrounded by 9/11 images, Jimmy Carter stands beside a gasoline pump, and George Washington rows across the Delaware River in a new gallery showing life-size figures of all the U.S. presidents.
A revamped Madame Tussauds wax museum opened its $2 million presidents gallery recently after spending a year carefully researching the eyes, hair and other features to add 28 new commanders in chief to its collection.
Each has a historical setting to represent his piece of history. Franklin D. Roosevelt is seated with a radio and fireplace for a “fireside chat.” Ronald Reagan stands beside the Berlin Wall, and President Barack Obama is near a replica of the Oval Office.
“We tried to immerse the area, to theme it during that time period so that it feels more authentic,” said General Manager Dan Rogoski. “We want people to walk in here and feel the authenticity. They feel like they’re part of it.”
Besides the National Portrait Gallery, the wax museum is the first place to show lifelike figures of all the presidents together in the nation’s capital. With brief doses of history to accompany the figures, there are more than a few stereotypes in how the presidents are presented.
Tussauds decided to recast itself as a presidents gallery over its usual mix of pop stars after the attraction didn’t draw as many paying visitors as planned since its 2007 opening in a city dominated by the free Smithsonian museums.
Tourists said in surveys that they wanted to see history and politics during a visit to D.C.
The museum also hopes to draw more school groups with its new focus.
There have been 44 presidents, but there are 43 figures. Grover Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms, is counted twice as No. 22 and No. 24.
To include all the presidents, Tussauds created 28 new wax figures over the past year. Typically its London artists would rely on photographs or video of a subject, but many of the founding father figures had to be based on paintings or historical accounts.
Rogoski said the figures are as accurate as the available information about each president. Researchers tracked details on eye color, skin tone and attire.
There’s a stately John Adams seated in a replicated “Independence Hall,” as well as the shortest president, James Madison, who stood 5 feet 4 inches tall.
A touch screen along the wall asks: “Which president ran up a personal wine bill of $10,000?” Answer: Thomas Jefferson. Apparently he made a habit of lavish entertaining.
For the heaviest president, William H. Taft, there’s a scale for visitors to compare their weight to his more than 300 pounds.
A few other public figures are mixed in with the presidents, including Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses Grant during the Civil War, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Andrea de Gatica, a teacher from Virginia, got an early look at the gallery with her niece, who was visiting from Chile. She said she would consider bringing her students who study English as a second language.
“They look so real, and they are so vivid,” de Gatica said of the wax presidents. “You come to learn about politics, the presidents, but you actually have fun.”
Text along the walls includes some historical context. Beside Carter’s figure and the gas pump, for example, a label explains that oil prices spiked during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 after an earlier oil embargo by Arab nations during President Richard Nixon’s years.