Animatronic residing at UT brings President LBJ beyond the grave

Landry Allred

In the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, also known as the LBJ Presidential Library, visitors expect to see artifacts, letters and even photos of the 36th president himself. However, few expect to see him practically in the flesh.

Since 1997, the library has housed an animatronic LBJ that moves, blinks and tells anecdotes from his dinner parties or events. To this day, it still amazes visitors and paves the way for a new kind of learning.

The Sally Corporation, an animatronic manufacturing company based in Florida, originally built the animatronic LBJ for the Neiman Marcus Dallas location. Anne Wheeler, the library’s communication director, said after the library received the animatronic from Neiman Marcus, the corporation reprogrammed it. For a while, the animatronic wore western attire but was later re-designed in 2012 to resemble the presidential look he has now.

Michael MacDonald, the library’s deputy director, said some regular visitors claimed they liked the cowboy LBJ better than his presidential side, but for the most part, they enjoyed either.

“(The animatronic is) still one of our more popular attractions within the museum,” MacDonald said. “Whether he’s behind a fence or behind a podium, people still love it.”

Since its installation, MacDonald said the animatronic displays the president’s sense of humor and shows the real man behind his rigid persona.

“The LBJ I grew up with was a very stiff person with little emotion,” MacDonald said. “But (with) the humor that he displays through the animatronic, people see a completely different, unknown side of him.”

The animatronic tells five stories, which are each accompanied by a recorded laugh track from when he originally told the stories. Its realism frightens visitors, as many of them audibly gasp or remark the animatronic’s eerie aura upon first viewing the figure.

Shelby Bier,  who visited the library with her bachelorette party in March, said she vividly remembers how lifelike the animatronic seemed.

“Even though it’s a robot, you still feel an aura of greatness about the person the robot is portraying,” Bier said. “I was only there briefly in front of the animatronic, (but) I felt that way in its presence.”

Another visitor from Chicago, Pat Mattlin, said the animatronic eyes really brought LBJ to life.

“The eyes make it feel like they’re looking right at you,” Mattlin said. “Like he’s telling you the story.”

As the animatronic elicits astonished responses, it displays the kind of effect the figure has on others. Julie Schell, an executive director in the School of Design and Creative Technologies, said there are two main types of learning: passive and experiential. While passive learning occurs by simply receiving information, experiential occurs through hands-on interaction with content.

“People learn when they’re actively engaged with the content, so it’s really exciting to see that (this animatronic) could create an experiential learning opportunity for students,” Schell said.

With experiential learning, Schell said people are able to construct a new understanding of the object they’re learning about. Thus, while viewing the animatronic, she said observers activate various parts of their brain to construct a new meaning.

“(The learning experience) would be different if they were just reading about LBJ from a book or even listening to a lecture about him,” Schell said. “(But) it’s not about the technology. It’s about the experience.”