First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s (JBK) trip to India and Pakistan: New Delhi, Delhi, India, Children’s Art Carnival at Teen Murti Bhavan, residence of Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru. Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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Jacqueline Kennedy’s Commitment to Culture

Bush Center exhibit explores the impact of America's First Ladies

Jacqueline Kennedy’s impeccable sense of personal style has elicited breathless praise from the fashion crowd for decades, but it is her role as an advocate for culture that may be her most important legacy.

A surprising and important cultural contribution of Kennedy’s was her role in saving the Pyramids of Egypt. She used strategic connections with people of influence to advocate in favor of allocating funding for a dam that would protect various ancient structures from being flooded. Natalie Gonnella-Platts, Deputy Director of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, says, “It’s a great example of how she leveraged her relationships and also of her thoughtfulness and her appreciation of culture. In a number of things she did, culture really stood front and center and was a key focus of her platform.”

In appreciation of Kennedy’s efforts, the Egyptian government gifted the Temple of Dendur to the U.S. That structure remains one of the most-viewed pieces at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City today.

Another key achievement of Kennedy’s with regard to culture was her effort to bring the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s master work, on a tour of the U.S. During a state visit to France, Kennedy greatly impressed the country’s leader, Charles de Gaulle, with her knowledge of French history and her grasp of the French language. Her connection with de Gaulle helped pave the way for the Mona Lisa to leave the Louvre for the first time.

Gonnella-Platts notes, “I don’t think that that would have happened if she had not exercised soft power and thoughtfulness from the outset. That was a product of her effective use of her platform, and she really built from that initial engagement. To this day, the Mona Lisa has only ever left France on one other occasion. It was in the 1970s, when it visited Moscow and Tokyo.”

Kennedy’s elevated use of soft power became an inspiration for the First Ladies who followed her. Gonnella-Platts says, “Jacqueline Kennedy took it to a new level that we continue to see today, particularly with regard to international engagement.” Among those who have gone on to build on her example are Laura Bush, Pat Nixon, and Rosalynn Carter.

First Ladies: Style of Influence, an exhibit currently on view at the Bush Center, further explores Jackie Kennedy’s contributions to culture, as well as those of every other acting First Lady, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. Artifacts connected to the women are used to dig deeper into the significance of the role of First Lady.

Gonnella-Platts connects learning about Jackie Kennedy and her fellow First Ladies through the Bush Center exhibit with celebrating the power of women in general. She says, “I hope that people come away with a deeper understanding of the role of First Lady and the affirmation that these stories matter, women’s stories matter, women in positions of influence matter, and there’s far more to this role than people realize.” The exhibit runs through October 1, 2018.

To learn more about Jacqueline Kennedy, listen to Bush Center podcast Ladies, First: EP. 3 JACKIE KENNEDY AND THE ART OF SOFT POWER. In this episode, Gonnella-Platts chats with Dr. Elizabeth Natalle, author of Jacqueline Kennedy and the Architecture of First Lady Diplomacy.

 

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