Campus & Community

Ken Burns to headline Theodore Roosevelt celebration

4 min read

Theodore Roosevelt is considered a principal architect of the U.S. national park system. To help mark his 150th birthday this fall, noted filmmaker Ken Burns will come to Harvard to offer remarks and show clips from his upcoming documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” due out in fall 2009. Scheduled for Oct. 3 at 4 p.m. in Sanders Theatre, Burns’ talk, “Distance in His Eyes,” is free and sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Collection of Houghton Library.

Burns’ talk also marks the opening of a special exhibition planned to honor the Roosevelt sesquicentennial, “Through the Camera Lens: Theodore Roosevelt and the Art of Photography.” Drawing on the Roosevelt Collection, a world-renowned resource for the study of the life and times of the 26th president, the exhibition will explore Roosevelt from several perspectives, including his mastery of the media and his love of the outdoors.

An avid outdoorsman, hunter, and naturalist, Roosevelt’s commitment to conservationism led him to play a significant role in the early development of America’s national parks, doubling the number from five to 10 during his presidency and setting the stage for future additions.

America’s national parks are unique in that the United States was the first country to set aside land with the goal of preserving it for the enjoyment of all. Burns’ latest film follows this idea from the mid-1800s onward, exploring the history of the parks through stories that pit preservation against exploitation, and individual rights against the community. It tells the stories of the characters behind those conflicts, people from all walks of life — rich and poor, famous and unknown — people like Roosevelt.

“Surely our people do not understand even yet the rich heritage that is theirs,” Roosevelt wrote in his 1905 “Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter.” “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majesty all unmarred.”

During his time in office, Roosevelt furthered his agenda by signing the Antiquities Act in 1906, a move that gave him authority to proclaim national monuments and historic sites on federal land without Congress’ approval. “Among other things, he was able to gain protection for the Grand Canyon from mining interests by naming it a national monument, although it was not designated a national park until 1919,” said Wallace Dailey, curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection.

In 1907, Roosevelt fought an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations Act that would have handed control of some 16 million acres in the Northwest to Congress. He held off signing just long enough to effectively designate those millions of acres as national forest.

“There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country,” he said in his “Confession of Faith” speech, delivered at the Progressive National Convention in 1912.

Housed in Houghton and Widener libraries, the Theodore Roosevelt Collection has its origins in a library assembled by the congressionally chartered Roosevelt Memorial (now Theodore Roosevelt) Association. Opened in New York in 1923, it was presented to Harvard 20 years later.

The Oct. 3 talk by Ken Burns is free. Seating is limited. Entrance will be first-come, first-served, on a space-available basis. The exhibition “Through the Camera Lens” is free and open to the public. It will be on display in the Copeland Gallery and Theodore Roosevelt Gallery in Pusey Library from Oct. 6 through December. The portion of the exhibit in the Roosevelt Gallery will remain on display through May 2009.

For additional information, contact Dailey, coordinator of Burns’ upcoming talk and curator of the upcoming exhibition, at (617) 384-7938 or