Alumna Tasked with Telling ‘Obama Story’

Louise Bernard has been chosen to lead the Obama Presidential Museum.

In July 2017, IU alumna Louise Bernard, MA’95, MA’97, was named museum director of the Obama Presidential Center, scheduled to open in 2021 in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. Bernard will lead the design, development, and operation of the museum.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in drama at the University of Manchester, U.K., Bernard set her course on an academic career, and following master’s degrees in theatre and English at IU, she received a PhD in African American studies and American studies from Yale University.

Her career since Yale has been as varied as it has been impressive. After teaching stints on the faculty of Vanderbilt and Georgetown universities, she worked at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.

Transitioning from academia to museum curation, Bernard worked on the design team that developed the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, along with several other international projects. Those, in turn, led her to a position as director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library and to the Obama Presidential Museum.

Bernard’s new role involves, in her own words, presenting “the story of the Obama administration” and helping sustain the legacy of the U.S.’s first African-American president.

We spoke with her in March about her career path, how it led her to the role at the Obama Presidential Museum, and about her time at IU in the 1990s.

Let’s start with a little about your background. I believe you are originally from the United Kingdom?

That’s correct. I grew up in the north of England, in Yorkshire, and I attended the University of Manchester for my undergraduate degree, where I majored in drama. One of my lecturers in Manchester was American. I was very interested in American theater and film and so he suggested that I go to the U.S. to graduate school.

And so, I came to Indiana to do a master’s degree in theater history. At that time, I presumed it would be a terminal degree. But, I really fell in love with research and writing. I ended up transferring into the English Department, where I felt I would do my PhD. At the end of four years and two master’s degrees at IU, I decided to take a break. I went to live in New Orleans for a year, reapplied to graduate school and that’s when I ended up at Yale, where I did a PhD in African American studies and American studies.

Was Indiana your first introduction to the U.S.? And, how was your time at IU?

That’s a good question. The only other place I had been in the U.S. was New York. I had acquired a travel grant from my department in Manchester, just to kind of visit New York. I wanted to do research at the Performing Arts Library, one of the research branches of the New York Public Library. I was coming to attend a film festival in Harlem. All I remember was just being struck by the sound of wailing police sirens all night [laughs]. And I noticed that people’s cars were all kind of bashed in, as if the people were constantly having fender benders. But, it was incredibly exciting to me to be in New York.

So, then my next experience was arriving in Indiana. I remember the night I flew in via Newark to Indianapolis and then caught the shuttle bus to campus. I sat next to a young woman who, I think, was coming from Spain to study in the music school at IU.

We were both heading to the international dorm. I didn’t have my luggage because it had been lost along the way. So, I arrived at the dorm and didn’t have anything with me. I didn’t really understand air conditioning so I had this blasting air conditioner and I didn’t know what to do with it. I just laid on top of this very thin mattress pad shaking all night.

My luggage arrived the next day and I set out onto campus. And, as you know, Bloomington is really just an oasis—a really beautiful campus. I was just struck by the size of it: the frat houses, sorority houses, the amazing I.M. Pei-designed art museum, and the Lilly Library. So, I was just kind of taking all of this in. It was August and I had never experienced heat like that; it was culture shock in so many different ways.

Coming from Manchester, where I had a really wonderful experience, the resources at a Big Ten research institution were something I’d never really seen. I was just overwhelmed by the immensity and the richness of the resources at IU. The library was somewhere that I spent a lot of time. I used to wander the stacks and just discover things.

It was a time when the internet was still in its very early days. We had to sign up for an email account. I remember thinking, “I will never use that.” But, you know the library had these fast computer banks, computer labs. It was just a really wonderful immersive experience. I had wonderful classes, and it just really set me on my path, I have to say. It made a world of difference to have that experience.

The OPC is designed as an open campus integrated into Jackson Park, in the community the Obamas called home. Rendering provided by The Obama Foundation.

Can you tell us a little about the Obama Center Museum and your work as the Obama Presidential Center takes shape?

Because the museum is connected to the Obama Foundation’s mission, which is one of civic engagement and empowering and inspiring people to really think about their role as citizens in the broadest sense of that term—in their communities, in the world at large—so, the museum becomes the most public-facing manifestation of the Foundation’s work. It’s the place where most people will gather to take away that aspect of the story.

And so, while many people think of museums and, particularly, presidential museums, as being about the past—as being about a very defined sense of time, whether it’s across one term or two terms—this particular museum also wants to think about President Barack Obama’s story as it relates to a deeper sense of the past.

He’s very cognizant, having come out of the world of community organizing, of the fact that his story was only made possible because of the shoulders on which he has stood over time. Of all of the people who went before, the long history of the American progressive movement, African American history, the civil rights movement, environmentalism, the women’s movement, gay rights. All of those narratives helped him become who he is today. So, there is that deep sense of history, there’s a sense of the present and all of the issues that we need to understand. But then, there’s also the possibilities of the future.

So, it’s a museum that’s really forward thinking, and it’s about engaging people and connecting people to what they can do and also how the world can be shaped through their actions, for the common good for the future. And that real sense certainly came from President Obama himself.

Working Closely with the Obamas

We have had a series of really detailed conversations with him directly, and with Mrs. Obama, about their work, about their vision of connecting people, of really bringing a sense of civics back into the quote/unquote “History Museum,” of helping people to see themselves reflected in his otherwise quite phenomenal story.

He had a wonderful cosmopolitan upbringing. But his true connection to politics and to people comes out of this immersion that he received when he arrived in Chicago, when he meets Michelle Obama and her family. And he really understands his true calling is connected to Chicago and its history. But he really wanted to ensure that that is very present in the museum. And it’s not the museum itself, it’s not a quote/unquote “monument to him”. And it’s not a hagiography around him. It’s really about the change we can all make. And he offers a really wonderful example of that.

And, then because the museum is in Chicago, it’s part of Museum Campus South. Chicago, as you may be aware, just has this really wonderful, vibrant cultural presence, and it’s a beautiful city architecturally. So, it’s been important, as the founding director of the museum, to really build relationship with other institutions, with other directors and their staff.

Building a Museum from the Ground Up

So, I’ve been building a team and the day-to-day work is very busy. The Foundation has offices in New York, where I’m currently based, in Chicago, and in D.C. So, I go back and forth between those three offices with much frequency. Then, most recently, I was in Honolulu to visit with President Obama’s sister and to really sit down and talk with her. Again, as part of that deep dive for the content. We also did a really wonderful visit to the Gates Foundation in Seattle and we were thinking about the overlaps between the work of the Obama Foundation and the work of the Gates Foundation.

I’ve spoken at lots of conferences. Many people obviously are interested generally in what it means to make a museum, as well as the work of the Foundation. I think that probably sums up just the general kind of “busy-ness” of the work and the day-to-day—it could be design meetings, meetings with other staff to talk about different projects. I’ll be doing interviews like this one, other kinds of media outreach. Working on the design, trying to find time to do research, you know, to read. Working on hiring and all of the other kinds of administrative aspects.

As someone from a different culture, what does this position mean for you personally?

It’s an amazing opportunity in the fullest sense of the word, inasmuch as it feels like I’m able to bring together everything I’ve learned to date. But it also offers a wonderful opportunity to learn even more about what it means to build, and to direct a cultural institution. I do enjoy feeling like this place is home, but not home.

There’s always the wonder of discovery and surprise for me. I go back and forth to the U.K. often because my family is there and, in the time that I have been in the U.S., the two countries have gotten closer together. When I first arrived in Indiana, I used to miss English chocolate and The Guardian newspaper and television programs and things like that. In terms of the digitally connected world it’s just so much easier to feel connected and all of the things I kind of missed I can just find here.

It’s easy to connect with family in terms of email and WhatsApp and it’s easy to call. Before it just felt like a kind of process, you had to go to … It was very expensive. So, I feel very much connected here in the U.S., but moving to Chicago will be another new exciting experience.

To be engaged and to learn more about another city, and as a student of culture, broadly speaking, this is just, again, a wonderful opportunity to immerse and to re-immerse myself in a history I’ve long admired. But also, I’m not a presidential historian so I’m also learning a lot as I move forward. I think it’s the challenge of the opportunity to keep learning, I think.

Part of the Obama Presidential Center’s mission is to inspire people and to change hearts and minds. That seems particularly challenging at this moment in time. How do you see the museum’s role in serving that mission?

Yeah, it’s a great question. Again, as you may be aware, the Foundation itself is nonpartisan; we’re a 501(c)(3) with that charitable status. The work itself is not overtly political, with a capital “P.”

There are politics in everyday life and one of the key values that President Obama brings to the table is empathy, and the desire for dialogue across seeming difference. I think people find especially true the importance of storytelling, of hearing people’s stories and sharing their stories; that there is so much commonality across differences. And, this is not to say that we should undermine the idea of difference: difference and diversity obviously is a positive thing in different kinds of ways. But there are points at which we can bring people together.

The Foundation is committed to the idea of helping young people, particularly. Training future leaders, whether it’s through literally bringing people together to share their stories, their ideas, their projects, their initiatives. And then, to provide them with the tools to actually act upon those ideas.

Or whether it’s through more formal partnerships with higher education and fellowships and scholarships and all of that ongoing work. Whether it’s the outreach that President Obama is doing internationally, convening town halls of young people, young leaders. He was most recently in Singapore and New Zealand. Before that he was in India. There’s so much good that can be done. Even in the seemingly difficult political climate.

So, we are very empathetic. I am very empathetic to those issues. But we know that there’s so much that can be tackled and changed, I think.

An eye-level view of the plaza at the future Obama Presidential Center, surrounded by the Museum building and public spaces.

Indiana University is very proud of your accomplishments and what you have achieved in your career. Do you feel your time at IU played a role in who and where you are today?

It has helped immensely. It’s something that I reflect upon more and more. Because it was such a formative experience as a young person. I had literally just graduated from Manchester, and undergraduate degrees in the U.K. are three years, so I was just 21. I got on a plane with a suitcase and no money and nothing else, and didn’t know anyone. And arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, and that was the beginning of my academic career. A career that has brought me to this point. And, I will be forever grateful that I had that opportunity and that experience.

Well, we appreciate you taking time to talk with us today and we wish you all the very best in the future. And congratulations on your new position.

Thank you.

Maybe we’ll check back in with you in about five years or so?

Yes, please do. I keep meaning to do a nostalgia trip to Bloomington, just to wander around the campus and visit my old haunts.

Written By
Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott, MA’84, PhD’99, is a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association and an associate editor of the IU Alumni Magazine. He enjoys sharing amazing stories about IU alums from all around the world.