A Museum with a Mission

The JFK Museum in Hyannis celebrates the past and looks ahead to the future by embarking on a $2.3 million renovation and expansion.

By George Brennan | Photos courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston

John Allen carries a shiny, silver half dollar in his pocket. Even before he was executive director of the John F. Kennedy Museum in Hyannis, Allen, a retired executive recruiter, carried the coin depicting the 35th president.

It’s a reminder to him of the legacy of President Kennedy’s messages of hope and civility.

Now, as the Cape prepares to celebrate what would have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday on May 29, Allen is using his business acumen to guide the Main Street museum through a $2.3 million capital campaign. The goal is to renovate the existing space, add a community room and theater on the bottom floor where the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame was once housed, and add both gallery space and technology that will make one of the country’s most inspiring presidents accessible to an even wider audience.

“We’re really ambassadors to this legacy,” says Allen.

The museum is a charming brick building on Main Street, the former Barnstable Town Hall. In 1992, Wendy Northcross, then executive director of the Hyannis Chamber of Commerce, and Rebecca Pierce-Merrick looked for a building that was around while Kennedy was president to share the family’s story.

“We began to tally the number of times we were asked something about President Kennedy or the Kennedy Compound, or Sen. (Edward) Kennedy,” says Northcross, noting how the museum came into existence. “In one year, we had a whopping 50,000 questions.”

A nearly life-size sculpture of John F. Kennedy in front of the Hyannis museum

Today, the JFK Museum is the fourth most popular attraction on the Cape, attracting more than 60,000 visitors per year. It’s behind only the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitors Center, which owes its existence to Kennedy, Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich.

There are photographs of multiple generations of Kennedys, their infectious smiles beaming as they enjoy the sand and salty air of Cape Cod, and the walls are filled with inspirational quotes from JFK’s campaigns and presidency. There is even a model of the president’s sailboat, Victura. One of the museum’s most popular attractions is the Kennedy Family Tree, which helps visitors sort out the who’s who of Camelot.

“What amazes me about President Kennedy and his wife and children is how timeless they continue to be,” says Northcross. “Their youth and vigor and charm and impact still resonates.”

In recent years, the museum has showcased more traditional and professional storytelling with its museum exhibits, including a powerful showcase of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the family matriarch. It’s a fitting tribute given the upcoming birthday festivities planned at the museum and throughout Hyannis and the Cape.

“What better way for us to talk about his birthday than to talk about his mother,” says Allen. “People are really taken by the dimensions of the woman and just how involved she was in his campaign.”

She’s an inspiration to young women. At 19, Rose Kennedy helped her father, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, run a successful campaign for mayor.

The museum has also teamed up with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Dorchester, as well as the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate located nearby at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The future plan is to stream some exhibits in Hyannis to give people access without trekking into the city.

Even as they celebrate the past, the Hyannis museum is looking ahead with its expansion.

“The Kennedy family continues to impact our lives through their work in major nonprofits and politics,” says Northcross. “And because they still live here, and people want to be connected to that or are curious about the family and their stories.”

One of things Allen would like to do is boost attendance among Cape residents. That’s why the museum’s speaker series, which has included luminaries such as Sergei Khrushchev—the son of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who was contemporaries with JFK—has been taken on the road to Falmouth, the islands and other venues.

The JFK Museum got a boost in attendance during the 50th anniversary of the president’s assassination nearly four years ago. Museum officials are hoping for another surge based on the president’s centennial celebration.

The recent presidential election and subsequent presidency of Donald Trump has provided yet another chance to draw visitors. “We see this as a tremendous opportunity to increase civic engagement,” Allen says. “The issue is civility.”

Kennedy’s messages of hope and civility attract visitors to the museum. Even in the darkest moments of his presidency, he wouldn’t let fear rule the day.

“Our hope with the museum is that people come and they can be introduced to a time when there were very significant disagreements, big issues on the table, and learn about how a particular president from—we like to say he’s from the Cape, even though he wasn’t born here—how he handled that,” says Peter Ubertaccio, a member of the museum’s board of directors and political professor at Stonehill College. “People walk away inspired about what politics can do.”

The Hyannis museum showcases Kennedy’s political stature and his passion for Cape Cod. “He was deeply attracted to the sea,” says Northcross, “and the entire family considered Cape Cod their real home, even though they had homes in many places.”

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