Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Artifact of the Road Not Taken

The National Museum of American History is home to all sorts of presidential artifacts. From Warren Harding’s silk pajamas to the gavel used in Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial to the ornate inkstand Abraham Lincoln dipped his pen into when signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the material culture of the American presidency is preserved, exhibited and interpreted. Last year, the museum added to its collection one of the solar panels that had graced the White House roof during the Carter administration. In doing so, it joined the Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, which also houses one of the president’s panels.

When Carter first had the solar panels installed on the roof of the White House staff eating area in 1979, they represented “Solar America,” just one strategy among many to educate Americans about the energy crisis and to instigate a national effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuel through a combination of individual changes and national legislation. From wearing a cardigan sweater during a speech on energy policy to exhorting the virtues of self-sacrifice, Carter wanted to underscore the fact that change often begins at home. Putting in the solar panels on the White House was his way of demonstrating this.

It was also an object lesson on the choices available to the nation. Carter declared, “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people-harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

The 32 solar panels came down off the White House roof in 1986. In 1991, their new home became the cafeteria roof at Maine’s Unity College, which exercised its commitment to sustainability by putting up twelve of the panels, where they were in operation until 2005; after that point they remained on the roof but were not operational. In 2007, Swiss artists Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller, with cooperation from Jimmy Carter, made a documentary about the panels, entitled, appropriately enough, “The Road Not Taken.” They took two panels from a storage facility at Unity and traveled and delivered them, in a van powered by biodiesel, to the Museum of American History and the Carter Library, examining the history of Carter’s energy efforts along the way. The Museum of American History added its panel to the White House collection, while the Carter museum made its acquisition part of a permanent display on the former president’s energy initiatives.

While 2002 saw 167 solar energy panels installed on White House grounds, courtesy of the National Park Service, no American president has made a personal commitment to using renewable energy sources at the White House since the Carter Administration. Last week, environmentalist, educator and writer Bill McKibben and three Unity College students sought to change that. They delivered one of Unity’s solar panels to the White House with a request that Obama install it as a symbolic resolution to address climate change and address energy issues despite the Senate filibuster of the energy bill.

McKibben and his crew wanted to bring home the fact that President can make a difference by doing small things. As McKibben pointed out in a recent article, “That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof, or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will help get the message across--the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.”

Disappointed by their lukewarm reception and the White House’s refusal to accept the solar panel, McKibben and the Unity students nonetheless acknowledged another lesson from history as they carted the panel away. Yes, Obama entered the White House with a message that was remarkably similar to Carter’s speeches of the ‘70s--emphasizing national unity, sacrifice and a spirit of creativity coupled with responsibility as our best bet for licking the nation’s problems. Americans responded to Carter by electing Reagan. With seven weeks until a midterm election that sees a surprising number of candidates declaring that there is no such thing as climate change, they did not want to give the pundits and adversaries of President Obama any more ammunition.

Me, I think Obama should erect that solar panel, call it living history, and be proud of it.

~ Margo Shea


  1. Marvelous story, thank you! I'd seen references to the solar panels' installation and subsequent removal in the National Building Museum's last green themed exhibit, and was so frustrated by backwardness. This information has not improved my mood. Thanks for sharing the continuing saga, and for AASLH folks for turning me on to this great blog.

  2. I must admit I was and still am a fan of Jimmy Carter, and that long-ago age when personal responsibility meant looking ahead for the good of the planet. And that speech certainly does resonate, a generation later, when the wrong path has led us to dependence on foreign oil, climate change, and more. We should admit that Carter was right.

    But more interesting, for this blog, is the quality of the solar panel as an artifact to tell a political story. Politics is hard to collect, except in the easy bumper-sticker and campaign button manner. Presidential objects offer tell personal stories, not political ones; I'm still wondering what Warren Harding's pajamas tell us about the Teapot Dome scandal (though maybe they do represent a "return to normalcy").

    The solar panels are a political point made physical - it would be interesting to look for other such manifestations. A good exercise for museum studies students!

    And it might also be interesting to know what department of the Museum of American History collected this. Is it a political artifact, or an engineering artifact? Are the political curators considering energy policy, or are the engineering curators considering politics? (The NMAH should post its collections committee proposal here, to tell us more.)

    And it will be interesting to see when, and if, this is put on display. One could imagine a range of exhibits, from one on energy to one on the 1970s. But perhaps the most immediately interesting one would be the exhibit on the Obama administration's unwillingness to take the Carter panel back. I understand the politics; but an embracing of the history--Carter was right, Reagan was wrong--would have been a bold statement on energy policy. Instead, we got an easy political calculation.

  3. Certainly, creating your own solar panels saves the initial installation costs which means the savings are even greater in the long run.

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  4. The Obama administration heeded the call - solar panels (although seemingly not the "artifactual" Carter one) will be going up on the White House sometime in the near future. has the news here.

  5. I did a quick research and found that there are 6 cities in California that promoting solar technology adoption at the local level. And it's so great that there are providers like, American Solar Direct Inc that offers home solar panel lease options in Southern California!

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