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Sixth Floor Museum

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

As I have discussed in other posts, Gail and I were in Dallas two weeks ago, and two weeks ago yesterday, my old friend Won picked us up at our hotel to drive us around for the day. I’ve written (here) about our visit to the Nasher Sculpture Center in the Dallas Arts District. And I forgot to write about our walk around the arts district after the visit. But my highest priority for the day was to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which we did on leaving the sculpture center. You may realize from the name that the museum must have something to do with John Kennedy’s assassination. Indeed, the museum occupies the sixth and seventh floors of the building in downtown Dallas that in 1963 was the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald worked that fall, and where on November 22, hidden behind boxes in the southeast corner of the sixth floor, he fired the shots that killed Kennedy. The sixth floor now has a permanent exhibit on the sixth floor devoted to telling the story of the Kennedy administration, the visit to Texas, the assassination, and its aftermath, through photos, text, and video. The seventh floor is the temporary exhibit space. Now showing is A Photographer’s Story: Bob Jackson* and the Kennedy Assassination, an excellent show in its own right.

* Jackson received the Pulitzer Prize for his extraordinary photo (below) of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, when the Dallas police were in the process of leaving police headquarters to transfer Oswald to the county jail. As an aside, my father, brother, and I had just left the house when the shooting took place. My uncle brought my cousin over to a convenient place between our houses so we could take him with us to Yankee Stadium, where we would watch the New York Giants play the St. Louis Cardinals in a football game. Whether the NFL should cancel or go ahead with their games that day was something of a minor controversy. They went ahead. Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, would later say it was the biggest mistake of his career. In any case, cousin Jimmy got in our car and breathlessly reported, still in shock, that Oswald had just been shot.

Before taking us to the museum, Won drove us around it to the front — Dealey Plaza — and westwards on Elm Street, under the three-part railway bridge. I didn’t understand at first the point of the detour, but once upstairs, on the sixth floor, as I read about and studied the map of the motorcade route, I appreciated how driving that stretch was an excellent prelude to the exhibit. The permanent exhibit is so well done. It is an intense, powerful, painful experience. First you read about the Kennedy’s early career, marriage to Jacqueline, run for the presidency in 1960, the early days of the administration, political troubles, the decision to travel to Texas to shore up support. And time begins to slow down as the Texas trip begins. San Antonio and Houston on the 21st, with the flight up to Fort Worth that night. Fort Worth on the morning of the 22nd, then the short (really short!) flight to Love Field in Dallas and the motorcade. Years, months, days, hours, minutes, and soon we are studying photos of the motorcade second by second as it heads west on Main, turns north on Houston at the eastern edge of Dealey Plaza, and then makes the left turn west on Elm, with the Texas School Book Depository building on the northwest corner of the intersection. As you work your way through the exhibit, you are also working your way to the southeast corner of the building. You can’t believe he’s going to be shot. But he is. You read. You tear up. And there you are, staring at a mock-up of the corner as it was when Oswald fired, with book boxes piled up to provide a blind from which he can shoot, and with the very window he fired through — the easternmost one on the south side — pushed up no more than a foot. The space is enclosed by glass, so you can’t actually walk into it, but you can view it from different angles, coming ultimately to the south side, at which point you look down on Elm yourself and see Oswald’s view. It’s shattering, 46 years later.

There’s much more to see in the permanent exhibit, and then there’s the temporary exhibit one floor up, and then of course, after exiting the building to the north, one has to circle back around to the south, onto Elm Street, to walk over to the grassy knoll, and then down to the street to look back up to the sixth floor window and see the angle of the shots. After that, for us, it was time to move on. Won wanted to head over to Eatzi’s Market and Bakery, and so we did. Pretty good food market — worth a visit. But next time you’re in Dallas, be sure to go to the Sixth Floor Museum.

On my bookcase just two and a half feet from my head as I write this is Don DeLillo’s Libra. I started it once, years ago, but got distracted by whatever else was occupying me at the time and never went back to it. Perhaps now’s the time to return to it.

Categories: History, Travel
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