Hoping to find new ways to connect to a more tech-savvy and younger audience, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation is naming a well-known banker, former White House staffer, and friend and adviser to the Kennedys as its first female chief executive.
Heather Campion will be charged with shepherding a number of ambitious initiatives, including the continued digitization of thousands of presidential documents, photographs, and videos and a redesign of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s iconic but aging exhibits to include more hands-on and high-tech immersion.
“The library is very lucky to land her and I think she feels privileged to be able to lead,” said Anne Finucane, global strategy and marketing officer of Bank of America and a Foundation board member.
In an interview, Campion said that in preparation for the job she re-read “A Thousand Days,” Arthur Schlesinger’s account of Kennedy’s presidency, and was struck by the young president’s confidence and optimism.
“He believed we could do anything we set our mind to,” she said. “I’m going into the position with that perspective on the man whose museum we are all trying to take into its next phase.”
Campion, 56, who makes her home in Brookline, has been a member of the Foundation’s board since 2003. She will assume her new position in March.
Campion will take over the Foundation’s leadership from Tom McNaught, who previously served as the Foundation’s director of communications and deputy director. McNaught assumed the position of executive director when David McKean left the post of CEO to return to Washington where he now works for Secretary of State John Kerry.
McNaught said a challenge for the Foundation lies in teaching the Kennedy legacy of public service and belief in government’s workings at a time when Washington is deadlocked in rancor.
“It’s difficult for us to say that government service is a noble profession when we see the Washington partisanship,” McNaught said.
But he said selling the message is made easier by President Kennedy’s favorability ratings, which have remained high. A recent Gallup poll rated him as the top modern president, ahead of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author, historian, and a director emeritus of the Foundation, said the museum and library must put Kennedy’s “lifetime into the context of an extraordinary decade when there was a sense of really believing in politics and government and in public action, when people could imagine coming together and doing things to make the country a better place.”
Young people are more likely to buy that view when it comes from a president like Kennedy, who remains young and vital in the eyes of the public, she said.
“Even 100 years from now, people coming to see the museum to see the movies will feel connected, not to some stuffy old man, but to a young man who will be forever young.”
Among its most important initiatives is a digitization project has been underway since January 2011, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s inauguration. The Foundation used the inauguration as a springboard for a significant fundraising campaign that officials this week announced had brought $10 million to the Foundation. The money will be used for the digitization project, along with new museum exhibits and education programs and outreach.
So far 10,500 photographs have been added to the library’s digital universe, along with approximately 426,000 pages of archival documents, 2,000 sound recordings of telephone calls, meetings and speeches; and around 100 video files, including family home movies.
Over 210,000 archival documents and 7,600 White House photographs have been scanned but not tagged with metadata and so are not yet searchable by the public.
What remains to be digitized is staggering: Some 48 million pages — 8.4 million of which are related to Kennedy. The goal is to digitize the most significant documents — those relating, for example, to space exploration, the nuclear test ban treaty, and the creation of the Peace Corps, McNaught said.
Campion comes to the job with a deep and varied resume. She worked in the speechwriting office during the Jimmy Carter administration, and held senior positions in the Mondale and Dukakis presidential campaigns. Between 1981 and 1998, she held a number of positions at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, including associate director of the Institute of Politics. More recently, Campion has worked in the banking sector. She was group executive vice president and director of corporate affairs at Citizens Bank and most recently, she served as chief administration officer for Northeast Bancorp.
“My biggest challenge will be ensuring the resources that the library needs, not just financially, but technologically, so that it can be a vibrant place in the 21st century,” she said. “There is a lot to work with.”