Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library will be a ‘museum of action’
The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, which will open in 2026, will feature immersive, hands-on learning experiences for visitors.
FARGO — The words "presidential library" conjure staid images of shelves of books, a few mannequins in historic dress and the words of dead presidents adorning the walls.
But the plans for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora envision an immersive experience, with exhibits that will engage visitors with hands-on learning opportunities and historical characters that come to life through state-of-the art three-dimensional image projections.
Planning of the library, which will open in 2026, has progressed beyond the design of the 93,000-square-foot building, to detailed concepts of exhibits that will occupy 32,000 square feet.
The $300 million project also will include an auditorium with seating for 300 that would enable hosting presidential debates, pavilion seating for 200 on the grass-covered roof overlooking nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park and 850 parking spaces.
The exhibits are being created to provide an active learning experience, including a shooting gallery and stuffed animal specimens that will emit the animal’s sounds when touched. “We want this to be a place where kids will drag their parents to visit,” said Ed O'Keefe , president and chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation.
“Our ambition is to have every eighth-grader in the state come for a night at the museum,” he said.
The library, which will be built on top of a butte on the edge of Medora and blend into the Badlands landscape, will be divided into a West Wing and an East Wing, reminiscent of the White House.
The library will have two types of exhibits. Narrative galleries will be arranged in chronological order to take visitors through eight chapters of Roosevelt’s life, beginning with his childhood in New York City, followed by his early adulthood, which included his formative time ranching and hunting in the Little Missouri Badlands in the 1880s.
“It’s probably the most traditional part of the museum,” and will include text, photographs, objects and clothing, O’Keefe said. Visitors could spend hours in this part of the library. “It will never be static,” he said.
Experiential learning will be taken to another level in the adventure galleries, with plenty of opportunities for interactive learning, O’Keefe said. “This I think is unlike any museum in the world and certainly more than any existing presidential library.”
In the childhood section, visitors will see a photograph of six-year-old Roosevelt and his brother Elliot looking out the second-story window of their grandfather’s house in New York as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege passed by — an example, O’Keefe said, of the world of politics and ideas that the 26th president was surrounded by as he grew up.
“That’s how you begin” a tour of the library, he said
Sickly as a child, Roosevelt lived a “life of the mind,” including books and a devotion to studying birds and other animals, including making taxidermied specimens in his bedroom, recreated as a gallery.
The exhibits are being created by a firm called Local Projects, which has extensive experience using sophisticated technology, including making displays for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
Each room will evoke a value important to Roosevelt’s life, such as curiosity, connecting with others and connecting with nature.
“You’ll be doing a lot in this museum,” O’Keefe said. “It’s more like a museum of action.”
The section on Roosevelt’s young adulthood will include a recreation of the interior of his Elkhorn Ranch cabin, which has been called the “cradle of conservation” because of the conservation awakening Roosevelt had while ranching and hunting in the Badlands.
In the basement of the ranch cabin, Roosevelt had a darkroom, which he used to process film and make prints of photographs he took of the area. “We’re using TR’s actual actual photographs,” which will be shown in cabin windows.
After his initial trip to Medora to hunt buffalo in 1883, Roosevelt returned in 1884 to seek the solace of nature after his wife and mother died on the same day — the day Roosevelt wrote “The light has gone out of my life.”
Because the Badlands had served as a healing place for Roosevelt, visitors will be able to go outside for a sweeping view of the Badlands and to reflect. “We think this moment in the museum will be intensely personal,” O’Keefe said.
Visitors will be able to sit down around a campfire, where characters from Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands will swap stories, their projected three-dimensional images bringing them to life.
“It is really going to be immersive, theatrical,” O’Keefe said. “It’s not a passive experience” — appropriate to commemorate a man who extolled the virtues of the “strenuous life.” During Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands, he conceived of a cowboy fighting force — an idea that later took form as the famous Rough Riders, a cavalry unit that Roosevelt led during the Spanish American War in 1898, an effort that relied heavily on volunteer soldiers.
“TR emerges as a hero of this moment,” an embodiment of civic pride and patriotism, O’Keefe said.
One of Roosevelt’s significant experiences in the war, the Battle of Kettle Hill, will be depicted with the help of a 35-foot projection screen.
The tour through the museum continues to Roosevelt’s presidency, which included setting aside 230 million acres of land for preservation, extolling passage of what would become the Food and Drug Agency and negotiating the end of the Russo Japanese War, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“He really is the first modern president,” O’Keefe said.
Visitors will be able to enter the cabinet room — and apply principles they hold to situations, just as presidents must do. A sign will greet visitors: “Welcome Future Presidents.”
After leaving the White House, visitors will enter an exhibit depicting Roosevelt’s post-presidential African expedition. Roosevelt bagged thousands of game animals, some of which will be exhibited.
“There’s a pretty extensive collection of rifles and guns,” O’Keefe said.
Finally, the museum tour ends with an epilogue of Roosevelt’s final days at his Sagamore Hill home.
The museum will have thousands of artifacts, plenty to anchor a stay of several days spent exploring Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, O'Keefe said.
“You could come back a half a dozen times and always see something new,” he said.
Initially, the project's budget was $100 million, the amount required to trigger a $50 million endowment from the state, but fundraising continues. By comparison, the Barack Obama Presidential Library now in development has a price tag of about $900 million.