With new attention on Carter legacy, presidential library due for overhaul

The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum is usually closed on Mondays, but its managers decided to open the doors for a few hours on Presidents Day to give people a space to process the news that the former president had entered hospice care.

Over the following days, attendance tripled and doubled from the previous week and nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. People looking for a place to reflect turned to the Atlanta-based museum, the archives library with thousands of Carter documents and its tree-lined campus.

“It’s so important for people to come to see and learn more about President Carter from the early years to current day; I just think it puts a different perspective on things,” said Meredith Evans, the facility’s director. “Plus, we have beautiful grounds for people to reflect on life and what this means as we enter toward new beginnings.”

Even before the news about Carter’s declining health, Evans was already thinking about the next chapter for the library and museum. The facilities are functional but aging.

When guests watch an introductory video that precedes each tour, they sit in the same cinema seats as the first visitors when the building opened in 1986. The theaters and other spaces need retrofitting to keep up with internet and audio-visual advances, as well as new compliance regulations for people with disabilities.

Evans also wants to create more classroom space to increase programming capacity.

Most notably, the museum’s exhibits haven’t been refreshed since 2009. The Carter library makes no mention, for example, of the presidency of Barack Obama.

Visitors walked through the Jimmy Carter Library, and Museum exhibits on Wednesday, Feb 22, 2023. The library and museum are undergoing their first significant renovation plans in over a decade. Miguel Martinez/ miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Jessica McAfee visited the museum last week with her children, a planned winter break trip. But she was glad to have purchased her tickets in advance, anticipating larger crowds in the days after the news broke about Carter’s health.

McAfee had noticed the dated exhibits but said it wouldn’t take much to modernize the public spaces.

“The kids love a lot of the interactive things,” she said. “I think incorporating that, otherwise teenagers they just think things are boring. But when you have a lot of the interactive things, it really engages them.”

Help is coming in the form of more than $7 million in federal funding to help cover the costs of modernizing and renovating the museum. Operated by the National Archives, the museum’s mission is to provide public spaces where researchers and the general public can review Carter’s letters, notes, gifts he received and other memorabilia from his presidency.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff had the money inserted into last year’s federal spending package through the earmarks process. Unlike the Carter Center, which is a nonprofit created by the former president that shares the same campus, the library and museum don’t have a separate fundraising arm. It is supported by the money it receives from gate admissions and gift shop sales, a Friends of the Library membership program and federal allocations.

“The Carter Presidential Library requested federal support to ensure access for students with disabilities to its educational programs and exhibits,” Ossoff, an Atlanta Democrat, said in a statement. “I was pleased to secure bipartisan support for these upgrades, especially since the majority of visitors to the library are Georgia K-12 students.”

Evans is in the initial stages of planning out the renovation project, which could take years to complete. The first step is hiring a designer to come up with site plans and a timeline, and then they will have a firmer grasp on the total budget.

Mark Rodriguez of Woodstock visited the museum last week and said the most informative parts were about Carter’s post-presidency.

“I find that to be as much or more significant than the things that he did as a president, actually,” Rodriguez said with a chuckle. “Quite a human being and an advocate of human beings.”

The Library of Presidents, which houses presidential papers, is a key focus of the ongoing renovation plans at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. The collection currently ends with the 43rd President George W. Bush. Miguel Martinez/ miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The museum starts with Carter’s boyhood in Plains and follows his life story to his 1976 campaign and beyond. There are exhibits about his interactions with presidents before and after his tenure and his travels while in office. Much space is dedicated to Carter’s philanthropies after leaving office, especially through the Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity. His Nobel Peace Prize is on display, and a replica Oval Office is furnished exactly as it was when Carter served in Washington.

As part of the upcoming renovation, Evans would like to dedicate more space to highlighting former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Her impact goes beyond just her husband’s career during a marriage that has lasted for 76 years; Rosalynn has her own philanthropic priorities.

“She’s her own advocate for a lot of things that we don’t highlight enough of as first lady and that we would like to highlight some more here,” Evans said. “We have a small section of exhibit for her for the Equal Rights Amendment, but she’s done quite a few more things that we’d like to showcase.”

Debra Waters, who is from Arlington, Virginia, was in the Atlanta area and decided to visit the museum shortly after learning that Carter had entered hospice care. When it was time to leave, she said she had a new perspective on the one-term president.

“I wanted to see what his life was about,” she said. “I’m maybe a little late, but I really have seen some incredible things that I never knew about the man.”

Photographer Miguel Martinez contributed to this report.

If you go

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

441 John Lewis Freedom Parkway NE, Atlanta


(404) 865-7100

Museum Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. (New visitors not admitted after 3:30 p.m.)

Children 16 and under: Free

Seniors 60+, Military, and College Students with IDs: $10

Adults: $12

Research Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. by appointment only