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Frank Rigg, a British Curator for an Irish American Icon

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Frank Rigg. Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

When a door opens in life, Frank Rigg has not been afraid to walk right through it. Take, for example, the time the young Brit accepted a fellowship to an American university simply after seeing the streets of Boston in a Hollywood movie. Or the time the recent anthropology major took a job at the New England Aquarium. Or less than a year later when he accepted the position as Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association during the Bicentennial year, a raw yet well-intentioned Englishman in an unfamiliar Yankee court.

The biggest door opened for Frank in 1969 when he was offered a position as Deputy Curator at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Frank was soon promoted to Curator and invested nearly 30 years of his life working for the Library, a dream career where he collaborated with members of the Kennedy clan, and rubbed elbows with prominent politicians, historians, conservationists, and entertainers.

Industrial Beginnings

Frank was born in a mill town, now part of Manchester in the northwest part of England. The region was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and Frank recalled that, “When I was a boy, all you could see was a forest of chimneystacks from all of the cotton mills.” At age 10, his father took a job in London and moved the family just south of the city. Frank said children in his new school laughed at his “funny accent” so he quickly changed it, and subsequently became adept at his “ability to talk with different accents.”

Frank attended high school in Surrey and later entered the University of Durham in 1963 where he received a degree in Anthropology and Geography. After graduation, Frank received a fellowship to do research in Spain. In January of 1968, on just his second day in Madrid, Frank went into a café for a bite to eat and was seated at a table next to a young woman from Macon, GA. “There’s a long story to that,” quipped Frank, but the short version is that they got married the following December.

It was his wife, Karen, who encouraged him to apply to graduate school in the United States. “I never, ever would have thought of it,” remarked Frank. He was studying the economic development of a small village in the hills of southern Spain while Karen was teaching English to Spanish professors. Karen suggested he write for catalogs from a number of schools.

“My landlady, Señora Juana, was very cheap,” Frank recalled, “and she didn’t buy toilet paper. The loo, as we say in England, was in a cave at the back of the house. I would read through those catalogs, and if I found them interesting, I would put them aside. If not, I would throw them out. Señora Juana would cut up the old ones, because I wasn’t the only guest.

One day Frank found a Brandeis University catalog in the cave. “I started looking at it, and it was more interesting than I thought. I took it back into the apartment and applied.”

A Crowning Moment

Frank was offered a fellowship to Brandeis, as well as to Columbia, a leading school for anthropology at the time. “I had an American professor whom I went to ask for advice about which school to choose. He said, ‘well, there’s a film on this week that is set in Boston that will give you a good idea of what Boston is like.’” That film was The Thomas Crown Affair. “We saw it and thought that Steve McQueen driving his BMW up and down Beacon Hill, serving lobsters to Faye Dunaway on the beach, sounded good to us, so we ended up going to Brandeis.”

After spending a few years living in Cambridge and Boston, Frank and Karen moved to Carlisle in 1978. Karen was the Dean of Students at Middlesex Community College in Bedford at the time, and they chose Carlisle so they could be close to home and their young daughter. “In those days you couldn’t just go online to look at houses, you had to go visit them,” said Frank. They ultimately looked at 48 houses before they chose one of their own.

Swimming Upstream

“My career had no rhyme or reason,” laughed Frank. “It was totally fortuitous. It was sort of like, you go along and see an open gate, and you think that looks interesting, and you go through it. That’s the way it happened”

While at Brandeis, Frank read an article claiming that only 10% of professionals with PhDs in anthropology would find employment. “Around that same time, a friend of ours told us about a job that was open at the New England Aquarium.” Frank interviewed and was hired. He agreed that the position was a bit of a stretch for an anthropologist.

Frank was at the Aquarium for nine months when his wife saw an employment ad in The Boston Globe for director of an historic Boston property. “I didn’t know anything about Boston history,” recalled Frank. But Karen prevailed on him to apply, and Frank said he got along famously with the men who interviewed him. At the end of the interview, they asked if he had any questions. Frank replied, with just a hint of English accent peeking through, “well, you should know that I am a British citizen. Would that be an impediment to my candidacy? They responded, ‘oh, no, we think it would be wonderful.’”

Frank went on to explain that Paul Revere, a French protestant, once received a letter from a cousin in Guernsey wondering why Revere was living Boston instead of France. His cousin wanted Revere to return to France, but Revere fired back a letter concluding that the French had “proven what Voltaire had said to be true. They are the savages of Europe.”

Working on the Freedom Trail

When Frank was hired, the Boston Herald ran an article that announced “a savage had taken over the Paul Revere House.” He took over in 1975, just as the country began to prepare for the Bicentennial. While Frank needed to brush up on American history, his first tough task was “to fire them all, then to very quickly hire a new staff.” He noted that, “The Revere House was one of the most popular sites on the Freedom Trail and, because we had big attendance that year, we had a ton of money to spend working on the house, redecorating, restoring, and refurnishing it.”

About 4 years later, Frank received a call from the director of the new JFK Library that was preparing to open in October 1979. He was a Harvard classmate of Frank’s boss at the Aquarium. “That was how it used to be. Boston was a small town. So again, here I was, interviewing for a job in a place that celebrated Boston’s possibly most famous Irish American. But they seemed to like what I had to offer.” And he got the job.

Frank joined the staff at the JFK Library for the opening in October 1979, and remained there nearly 30 years until he retired. “It was a fabulous place to work. There are so many things going on there.”

Curating the JFK Library and Museum

As Curator of the JFK Library and Museum, Frank was in charge of the exhibits and the collection. “The collection was pretty well formed because, after JFK’s death, a lot of things were transferred immediately to the library. Like all presidential libraries, the JFK library is part of the National Archives. All of those materials were assembled and sent up to Massachusetts to a big National Archives facility in Waltham. Once the building was built at Columbia Point, the collection was transferred there.”

Frank was not trained as a museum curator, although his work at the Revere House provided some experience for his new position. “You sort of absorb things,” noted Frank. “One of the first things that I had to do was to inventory the entire collection. It was a great way to learn. And then you read a lot, a lot of books about JFK, and eventually you put it all together.”

As Deputy Museum Curator, Frank ran the operational aspects of the museum, and worked for several years before becoming Curator. “We had 2 directors who worked in the Kennedy White House and my predecessor as curator was a very close associate of President Kennedy all the way back to his first campaign for Congress. I was directly exposed to their knowledge. We had so many people from the Kennedy administration visit, so it just surrounded you. It was amazing.”

Perks of the job: John Kenneth Galbraith

Over the years Frank gave countless tours to former presidents, foreign dignitaries, politicians, Hollywood stars and more. He recalled a visit with John Kenneth Galbraith as one of his favorite memories.

Frank said there is a photo mural in the museum of JFK and Robert Kennedy having a reflective moment in the Rose Garden at the White House. On a visit to the museum, Galbraith explained to Frank the history behind the photo—the Kennedy brothers were actually discussing how to get Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail after King had been arrested for a minor traffic infraction in Georgia.

“It was the beginning of a big switch in Georgia where white voters began to vote Republican and black voters began to vote Democrat. The margin of Kennedy’s victory was such that the black vote made a big difference,” explained Frank. JFK was persuaded to call Coretta King to express his concerns. Robert Kennedy, using a different method, called the judge who sent King to jail and persuaded the judge to release him. Frank said, “Galbraith said to me, ‘that’s how they operated: Jack called the wife and Bobby called the judge!.’”

When they were walking through the glass atrium at the museum, Galbraith stopped to look at a quote printed on the wall: All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

“Galbraith said to me,” recalled Frank, “’you know, I wrote that. I spent 6 weeks writing drafts for the inaugural address, as did many other people, and all they took were 2 sentences. That one, and Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.’”

“That was a real lesson for me,” remembered Frank. “If all they took from John Kenneth Galbraith was 2 sentences, I had better be satisfied with whatever tiny bit I can contribute.”

VIP Tours: Senator Ted Kennedy

Many honored guests came for tours of the museum with Ted Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy family. “It was wonderful because, who would know more about a story than a Kennedy family member? I would tag along and lead the tour, and Senator Kennedy would pipe in with things that he remembered or facts that he wanted to add.”

Frank recalled an exhibit of documents relating to the 1960 presidential campaign. “There was a note in there from JFK that referred to Ted. It said something like, ‘Tell Ted to have somebody record him when he is speaking so he can improve his diction.’ Ted was really pleased to see his big brother referring to him and said, ‘well, I still do need to work on that.’”

Most Memorable Guest: President George H. Bush

One of the most memorable tours Frank recalls fondly was one he gave to President George Bush and his wife, Barbara. “It was supposedly one of those incognito visits on a weekend, but as soon as the Secret Service showed up, everyone knew someone special was in house. Those Presidents all like to check out each other’s libraries,” Frank said coyly.

Frank told President Bush that he had visited his presidential library. Frank told him that, “While I watched the introductory film, I sat behind two women who, at the end of the film, started dabbing their eyes with their handkerchiefs. Bush quickly answered, ‘Oh, that bad, huh?’”

Working with The Kennedy Family

Frank had a great deal of interaction with the Kennedy family over the years, in particular Eunice Shriver and Caroline Kennedy. The Kennedy clan would often show up in large numbers to greet VIP guests, particularly Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and foreign dignitaries. Many family members also regularly attended the annual Profile in Courage Award ceremony. Since Caroline was President of the JFK Foundation, Frank did quite a bit of work with her directly.

“Eunice Shriver was probably my favorite Kennedy,” said Frank. “She was the founder of Special Olympics and she would bring guests to the museum who had made large donations to them. She had so much energy and was always pitching for Special Olympics. On one occasion we finished a tour and went out into the glass atrium. There was a large group of school girls gathered there with their parents. The parents recognized Eunice and all came up to say hello. When the girls found out that Eunice’s daughter was married to Arnold Schwarzenegger, they all ran up to meet her, too!”

Frank noted that Jacqueline Kennedy was a quiet leader at the Library. “She would never push herself forward,” Frank recalled. “She liked to take a back seat to Caroline and John, Jr. I don’t even remember her speaking in public there.”

Favorite Exhibit: Jacqueline Kennedy Travels Abroad

Frank immediately chose Jacqueline Kennedy Travels Abroad as the favorite exhibition of his career at the Library. The exhibition which opened in 2000 was a joint production between the Kennedy Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “I got to work with Caroline, and we were very fortunate because the Met provided the funding, we provided the collection,” said Frank.

“The Library owns a very large number of her first lady costumes. The exhibition was about her as first lady, and each section was highlighted with a costume that was related to that piece of the story. Putting it all together was a wonderful experience. I got to work with a creative consultant, Hamish Bowles, who was the European editor-at-large of Vogue and has an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history—and he’s English.

“I was nervous about working with him – perhaps he was a temperamental fashionista and I, of course, didn’t know anything about fashion. I remember that the first time he came, we had laid out the dress Jackie wore when she gave the televised tour of the White House on the work table. Hamish took one look at it and said, ‘Well, I can tell by the buttons that this dress was made in the atelier of Christian Dior.’”

Frank said that talking to Bowles was like talking to an architectural historian. “An architectural historian could look at nails and tell you when a building was built. Only he would know that Christian Dior used buttons like that.” Hamish also knew many famous designers including Jackie’s favorite, Givenchy, so had great insight and stories to share from those relationships.

Most momentous visit: Nelson Mandela

Frank remarked that one of the most moving events he witnessed at the library was a visit from Nelson Mandela. Mandela had been recently released from prison and visited Boston on June 23, 1990 as part of an 8-city tour in what the Dorchester Reporter referred to as “an event that brought Boston communities together in celebration of democracy and racial justice.”

That day, Mandela delivered a speech to hundreds of thousands of people on the Esplanade before visiting the JFK Library. Frank remembered that, “the press coverage was massive. We had a huge bleacher full of TV cameras and photographers, and it was live on all of the networks.”

Frank is still moved by Mandela’s speech to this day. “It was so different from what we are used to hearing from politicians today. He spoke straight from the heart, with an almost saintly quality to it. I subsequently met others who were in prison with him, including Armand Kathrada who was responsible for turning Robben Island into an historic monument, and he, too, had this same saintly quality.”

Mandela spoke in the great glass atrium, then was honored by Stevie Wonder who performed a song he had composed for Mandela on the day he was released from prison. “When Wonder finished, the emotion in that space was unbelievable,” said Frank. “Everyone stood up and cheered and clapped—it was the most memorable experience of any I had while I was there.”

Frank recalled a special moment after the festivities concluded. “After it was all over and all of the guests had left, I came out onto the plaza. There were just a few papers blowing around, but then I noticed Stevie Wonder talking to these little boys from the Columbia Point housing project. They couldn’t believe they were talking to Stevie Wonder, and they were listening to him with great attention. That was almost as powerful as hearing him sing during the celebration.”

Conservation and Collaboration

Frank particularly enjoyed working with museum conservatists to preserve the historic collection. “We had a very fine textile conservator who at that time was the director of the Lowell Textile Conservation Center. I loved just watching her and her staff working on the costumes so slowly and patiently and carefully. We also had 2 wonderful conservators from the Museum of Fine Arts who would work with paintings or metal objects. They needed to have a scientific background and at the same time have hands like an artist.

“A large part of the pleasure of the job was putting a collection in good order, cataloging it, and having it conserved properly. We started a program of changing exhibits so there was a permanent structure to the museum, but the component items could be changed. We would think of stories we wanted to tell through paintings, objects or documents and we would put them together as small exhibits. We were exposing another side of the collection, other stories that could be told.”

One of Frank’s assistants, Jim Wagner, was very good at tracking down materials to be part of an exhibit. Frank said that Jim came across a letter in the document research area signed by Greta Garbo. It was a note from Garbo to Jacqueline Kennedy thanking the First Lady for throwing a dinner party in her honor in the private living quarters at the White House.

One line of the letter puzzled Jim: “If it wasn’t for the President’s tooth sitting before me, I wouldn’t have believed it had happened.”

“Jim had a brainstorm,” said Frank. “Kennedy had a very nice collection of scrimshaw. What if the tooth was a piece of scrimshaw from his collection? Ever resourceful, Jim found the executor of Garbo’s estate. The executor was Garbo’s great nephew, who confirmed that Garbo did, in fact, collect scrimshaw.

“There was a book published with every piece in Kennedy’s collection. We had every piece except one—the missing tooth. It turns out that it was in the ownership of Garbo’s niece, the executor’s mother, who was living in Garbo’s apartment in New York City. Jim met with the niece and she agreed to loan it to us for an exhibit we were doing on items related to the sea.”

“There were many examples of things that puzzled us in the collection, then we would find an answer. It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was very satisfying.”

Making the Museum Relevant for Generations to Come

Frank noted that when the JFK Library opened, most everyone who visited had some recollection of JFK, if only fleeting images of his tragic assassination. The museum started to have problems years later when children who visited were confused or misunderstood the introductory movie at the museum.

In 1984, “we started to redesign the museum with a view towards the future and people who might not know much about the story,” Frank explained. “One of our consultants was Ed Schlossberg, Caroline Kennedy’s husband, who is a museum designer. He came up with the idea to try to give people a sense of being there, in the moment. We hired a designer (Jeff Kennedy, no relation) to recreate the museum around this notion. It was done by making the primary voice of the museum that of JFK himself.

“As you went into the museum, each exhibit was sort of like a ‘you are there experience’ with things from that time period illustrating different aspects of his presidency. You started out on a street walking past an appliance store with TVs showing Nixon and Kennedy commercials and Father Knows Best. On the other side of the street is a variety store and hairdressers from the period. We even hired a Hollywood prop company to help. It brings you right back to the day.”

On looking back since retirement

“I vowed when I left the Paul Revere House, that I was not going to hang around and tell people how to do things,” said Frank. “It was the same when I retired—I did not want to be the busy-body old curator, so it’s really up to the new generation to figure out what to do next.”

After his wife, Karen, died 11 years ago, Frank decided to stay in Carlisle since he has so many friends here. He is currently a member of the Rotary Club in Concord, and serves on the board of the First Religious Society where he is also a member of the men’s group, book club and beer tasting group. Frank also does limited speaking engagements, including an upcoming Zoom lecture for the Carlisle COA on October 5 entitled, "Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Election of 1960."

Frank aptly describes himself as having a “sticky memory,” and recalled one last instance when he met journalist Bob Woodward. Woodward came to Boston when the JFK Library was planning to release secret tape recordings from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Woodward was given permission to interview anyone in the building, and somehow I got picked, even though I didn’t know a darned thing about the tape recordings,” Frank chuckled. My recollection of it was that he would ask you a question and, if your answer wasn’t interesting to him, he would interrupt you and ask you another. I didn’t tell him anything that he didn’t already know, so he never used any of my interview.”

Bob Woodward has no idea what he missed.

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