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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Hail to the Chief Curator

A History

Curators are indispensable to historic sites and museums today. Utilizing their subject expertise and training in the field, they conduct research, organize exhibits, acquire and loan items, and manage the preservation of historic art and artifacts. Today, the White House Collection contains more than 60,000 decorative and fine arts pieces, overseen by a team of curators. While curatorial staff members have managed the collection since the early 1960s, there was no designated caretaker of White House sculpture, chinaware, furniture, and paintings for much of the home’s history. In the early nineteenth century, the role of a “curator” was not yet professionalized, but as museum collections management and curatorial practices became more standardized in the twentieth century, so did the care of the White House Collection.

Until the first curator joined the staff in 1961, various staff members and occupants supervised the White House and its furnishings. Throughout the nineteenth century, some curatorial duties were supervised by the steward, predecessor to the role of chief usher. In this period, the steward purchased furniture, managed building projects, inventoried items, and kept the keys to the White House silver and china cabinets.1 Still, their primary concern was household management, rather than preservation and historical interpretation; consequently, for much of its history the impetus of protecting the historic integrity of the Executive Mansion has fallen to its residents—especially first ladies and White House hostesses.

This silver trunk was used to store White House silver in the nineteenth century. The steward oversaw inventories of fine and decorative arts and kept the keys to valuable items like silver in this period.

Library of Congress

Many early White House occupants were not preservationists, leading an Evening Star reporter to lament in 1890 that: “the domestic administration of the official home of the Presidents has long been managed in a rather irresponsible manner.”2 Without protective protocol in place during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the White House was plagued by theft and neglect while many historic pieces were sold, damaged, or lost; in fact, many saw White House objects as presidential relics and souvenirs, rather than important historic artifacts.

The most striking example of damage occurred when British troops set fire to the President’s House and the decorative and fine arts within it in 1814; a small number of pieces, including the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, survived thanks to the order of First Lady Dolley Madison and the rapid response of White House staff including enslaved valet Paul Jennings, steward Jean Pierre Sioussat, and gardener Thomas McGrath.3

Other first families simply discarded historic furniture to make way for modern, fashionable decor. Since John Adams moved into the White House in 1800, Congress has appropriated funds for the redecoration of the President’s House. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was common to auction dated or worn-out furniture to the highest bidder at public sales and use the proceeds for new acquisitions.4 In 1860, for example, James Buchanan sold what remained of the Blue Room’s historic Bellangé furniture suite, originally purchased by James Monroe. Renovations during the Theodore Roosevelt administration removed the historic Tiffany screen in the Entrance Hall, commissioned by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882; the pieces were sold at auction in 1903.5

The White House Tiffany Screen is pictured here in 1892.

Library of Congress

Visitors also contributed to the deterioration of White House interiors. Andrew Jackson famously left a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese to age in the Entrance Hall for two years, and in 1837, visitors climbed through windows and packed into historic rooms to get a taste. The cheese ultimately left stains and smells that lasted well beyond its departure.6 Later, during the chaos of the American Civil War, journalist Noah Brooks observed:

People who visit the White House usually have a free range over the East Room and one or two of the adjoining parlors; accordingly relic-hunters…have acquired the practice of cutting out and carrying off bits of rich carpet, damask hangings, and even large pieces of fringe, cords, tassels, gilt scroll-work and the covering of damask sofas.7

Fortunately, several nineteenth and twentieth-century first ladies and surrogate hostesses recognized the value of preserving the Executive Mansion. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Andrew Johnson and his family moved into the White House and were met with tattered interiors, grime, and vermin. Johnson’s daughter and White House hostess, Martha Patterson, intervened, and with the help of decorator Colonel J. A. Stevenson, she oversaw the acquisition of new furniture, searched the White House attic for historic portraits, and managed the refurbishment of the White House State Floor.8

When President Benjamin Harrison and his family moved into the White House, First Lady Caroline Harrison embraced similar duties. She took an inventory to “ascertain what household articles of art, historic interest and vertu have escaped the carelessness of servants or auctioneer’s hammer.”9 She also argued against the frequent replacement of White House furniture, telling reporters: “These systematic depredations [have] despoiled the mansion of about everything that would carry the occupants of the mansion, the guests of state occasions and the passing visitors back through the long line of patriotic memories connected with the presidents, their families, and their private lives.”10 Finally, Mrs. Harrison proposed new cabinets to display presidential china and an expansion of the White House that included the addition of a dedicated art gallery. Her plan for a gallery never came to fruition, but presidential china soon caught the attention of another first lady.11

This plan shows First Lady Caroline Harrison’s proposed White House extension, including a “historical art wing.”

Library of Congress

Edith Roosevelt was keenly interested in the collection and oversaw the creation of display cabinets on the Ground Floor for the protection and presentation of the pieces in the early 1900s.12 She was assisted by Abby Gunn Baker, a journalist and amateur historian who published a history of the china collection during the William McKinley administration. In 1917, Edith Wilson moved the collection into a designated space on the Ground Floor called the China Room.

During the 1920s, Grace Coolidge undertook efforts to locate historic furniture across America for addition to the White House Collection, telling reporters: “The White House is really a national institution—a shrine. I feel it belongs to the American people and they should have a part in its furnishing.”13 This project was bolstered by Congressional S. J. Resolution 163, which authorized the acceptance of “donations of furniture and furnishings for use in the White House” in 1925.14 Mrs. Coolidge also oversaw the renovation of the Green Room in the “colonial style,” advised by a committee of prominent preservationists, architects, and museum experts. This was the first time that a first lady transformed a room of furnishings and décor with the assistance of trained professionals.15

The White House China Room in the 1920s

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Soon after, First Lady Lou Hoover initiated the first comprehensive inventory of decorative and fine arts pieces at the White House to make the collection more accessible to researchers and visitors. Her inventory included “an object-based card catalog, three cross-card catalogs, provenance files, a narrative, and two typescript drafts” and historic photographs.16 Mrs. Hoover worked with a friend, Dare Stark McMullin, and her secretary, Ruth Fessler, to complete the research. The catalog went unpublished in her lifetime, but the National Park Service undertook a similar museum-level cataloguing process of the White House Collection in 1946.17

During the Harry S. Truman administration, an assessment of the home’s structural integrity found that the White House was on the brink of collapse; to prevent further deterioration of the site, Truman spearheaded a major renovation from 1948-1952.18 The process earned criticism from historians and preservationists, who called the renovation a “mutilation” of the president’s home.19 Indeed, the historic interiors were completely demolished, and only the exterior shell remained; new steel infrastructure, concrete foundations, and updated amenities such as air conditioning were added.20

This photograph shows the interior of the White House during the Harry S. Truman renovation.

Abbie Rowe, National Park Service

In the 1960s, First Lady and dedicated preservationist Jacqueline Kennedy ensured that the souvenir-hunting and mismanagement of decades past would not be repeated by setting in motion a series of events that maintain the historic integrity of the President’s House to this day. In 1961, Congress passed Public Law 87-286, ensuring “primary attention shall be given to the preservation and interpretation of the museum character of the principal corridor on the ground floor and the principal public rooms on the first floor of the White House” and that “articles of furniture, fixtures, and decorative objects of the White House, when declared by the President to be of historic or artistic interest… shall thereafter be considered to be inalienable and the property of the White House.”21 The first lady also founded the White House Historical Association to enhance the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion.

In March of 1961, Mrs. Kennedy hired the first White House Curator—Lorraine Waxman Pearce. The creation of the role reflected the further professionalization of the museum field in the mid-twentieth century; in 1952, the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture—Pearce’s alma mater— accepted its first students, and the Whitney Museum later introduced a professional training program for curators in 1967.22 As curator, Lorraine Pearce oversaw White House refurbishment projects and acquisitions, implemented collections policies, and assisted with the creation of the Association’s first White House Guidebook.23 In October 1961, William Voss Elder III joined the White House staff as a registrar, assisting Pearce with curatorial projects, and he later became curator in 1962 after Pearce resigned.24

The position of curator was not made permanent until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11145, formally establishing the position of White House Curator, and creating the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.25 Today, the Committee and the White House Historical Association work closely to advise on preservation projects and acquisitions at the Executive Mansion.

Lorraine Waxman Pearce, first White House Curator, is pictured in the White House China Room in 1961.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Subsequently, the White House Office of the Curator, whose small staff includes the Curator, a Collections Manager/Registrar, an Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, an Associate Curator of Fine Arts, and a Curatorial Assistant, maintain the White House and its historic fine and decorative arts collection from their office on the Ground Floor.26 Since 1961, the following individuals have served as curator: Lorraine Pearce (1961-1962), William Voss Elder III (1963-1963), James R. Ketchum (1963-1970), Clement Conger (1970-1986), Rex Scouten (1986-1997), Betty Monkman (1997-2002), William Allman (2002-2017), and Lydia Tederick (2017-present).27 As non-political appointees, curators and their staff typically remain at the White House across multiple administrations and often come from professional backgrounds in museums and art galleries. They work closely with the White House Chief Usher; in fact, Rex Scouten served in both positions during his time at the White House.28


In collaboration with the first lady, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, and the White House Historical Association, the Office of the Curator preserves the most famous historic home in America. One of its duties is the acquisition of new pieces for the collection. The curatorial staff acquires pieces that reflect the diverse history of the United States and locates historic items from previous administrations; notable twenty-first century additions include Jacob Lawrence’s The Builders (acquired in 2007), Alma Thomas’s Resurrection (acquired in 2015) and Isamu Noguchi’s Floor Frame (acquired in 2020).29 The Office of the Curator also oversees the conservation of fine and decorative arts pieces, as well as refurbishments of historic rooms, including the 2005 Lincoln Bedroom refurbishment and the 2018 Bellangé suite restoration.30 Both projects were funded by the White House Historical Association.

Curator William Allman and First Lady Laura Bush oversee the Lincoln Bedroom refurbishment, 2005.

Courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Finally, curatorial staff members serve as experts on the White House Collection. They participate in museum exhibits and conferences, conduct research on the history of the Executive Mansion, and advise the first family and White House staff on the daily upkeep and protection of the home. For example, when a first family moves in on Inauguration Day, the curatorial staff helps to arrange artwork and redecorate private rooms using pieces from White House inventory. Some pieces are stored in the basement, while the vast majority of the collection is kept off-site at museum-grade facilities in Maryland.31 The Office of the Curator also manages loans from prominent museum collections across the United States, such as the National Gallery of Art, the Normal Rockwell Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Whitney Museum.32

Curator Betty Monkman leads a tour of the Green Room in 2001.

Courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The White House Office of the Curator has the unique privilege of curating a collection that is viewed, walked on, eaten upon, and touched nearly every day by first families, pets, and visitors. Former White House Curator William Allman reflected on the exceptional challenges presented by working at the Executive Mansion:

It is a museum but it’s also the White House, and so it’s a working house…There are times when you run screaming, telling somebody, ‘You can’t put those hot television lights up against the portrait of Washington!’ You worry about someone spilling a drink on something. Sometimes somebody breaks a piece of furniture. But it’s the nature of it. It’s a place where people actually live.33

Millions of visitors from around the world enjoy the Executive Mansion and its historic interiors each year, and thanks to the expertise and diligence of the White House Office of the Curator, this will be the case for generations to come.