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How presidents and first families pick White House artifacts and what they mean

10 Tampa Bay takes you inside the White House Historical Collection.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — You may have seen President Joe Biden sign executive orders from behind the Resolute desk, but did you know there’s more to that desk and even what artifacts and art are selected to go in the White House for an incoming president and first family?

When a new president arrives, behind the scene curators are hard at work.  As the outgoing president leaves, within hours décor – art and furniture and family photos get switched out.

“Each president gets to choose what they want. So they have access to the full collection. And they can say, ‘You know, I would like to have this particular portrait featured in my Oval Office, etcetera or this bust.’ So, I think that's really cool and it kind of shows what's important to them,” said Lina Mann.

Mann is a historian for the White House Historical Association. The association helps the White House collect and preserve artifacts. There are more than 65,000 pieces in the White House collection."

Mann herself even has a favorite piece.

“There are these console tables that exist in the State Dining Room, and they have basically these huge, gigantic eagle legs. And, I just think that's really fun. They date to 1900s renovation of the White House under Teddy Roosevelt,” she said.

It’s items like those that were preserved thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who was known for revamping and even glamming up 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“She really wanted it to present American history. And so, she really pushed to make it into a living museum,” Mann said.

An act of Congress in 1961 formalized the White House Collection. Since then, presidents and first ladies have had their pick of the collection. 

First ladies typically select the artwork that will be on display in many public areas of the White House.

“It's also cool to see what the first lady likes to pull as well, what touches the family put on the White House, since it is not just an office but a home,” she said.

Choosing from the White House Collection isn’t haphazard. It often represents something that is priority to the president and first family.

President Biden chose the classic Resolute Desk for his Oval Office. (By the way, there are five other desks presidents can choose from.)

President Biden also chose a massive portrait of FDR, a possible nod to another president who led the country through challenges. And, he has on display a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To see the White House Collection for yourself there are a few options:



In the era of COVID-19 you can peruse it online via the White House Historical Association.  They feature many objects from the collection.  There are numerous galleries available on the website. There’s also a digital library where you can access just about any picture of a painting or anything in the collection.

And of course, if you take a public tour to the White House, you can see all of the artwork that is on display there.

There’s also an app where you can get in and do a 360 turnaround in each of the rooms and see where some of these paintings are.

Additionally, the White House Historical Association works to educate children about the White House, the artifacts and its history.

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