Exhibit examines Kennedy assassination theories

Evan Laine of Philadelphia University explains the model approximating the inside of JFK's limousine on the fatal day in Dallas.
Evan Laine of Philadelphia University explains the model approximating the inside of JFK's limousine on the fatal day in Dallas. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 20, 2013

Until the very end, Sen. Arlen Specter insisted that one shooter - and only one - killed President John F. Kennedy.

The "single bullet theory" was no theory, Specter would snap whenever the topic came up. "It's a conclusion," he repeatedly asserted.

Specter, who died in 2012, was a rising young prosecutor when he joined the Warren Commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination.

In a decision that continues to draw critics and controversy, the commission pinned the killing on Lee Harvey Oswald.

There was no Mafia plot.

No anti-Castro conspiracy.

Oswald acted alone, the commission concluded in its 889-page report.

Now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, Philadelphia University is staging an innovative exhibit to probe the different theories on whether Kennedy was killed by one assassin or two.

Specter, who lived nearby in East Falls, left all of his personal papers and archives to the university.

"Single Bullet," a free show open from Oct. 21 to April 11, is the first major exhibition for the university's Arlen Specter Center for Public Policy.

Conceived by a creative team of students, faculty and staff, the exhibition displays artifacts and information, but also allows visitors to test conflicting assassination theories.

The focal point of the display is a life-size pine-and-metal model of the limousine Kennedy was riding in when he passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. It's less a replica of the car than an approximation.

Placed in an alcove on the second floor of the university's Paul J. Gutman Library, the car allows a visitor to imagine sitting in the exact spot as Kennedy.

On a jump seat in the front is a mannequin representing Texas Gov. John Connally.

Here's where the ingenuity comes in.

Three rifle shots were fired that day. One bullet missed the motorcade; one pierced Kennedy's neck and, according to the commission, struck Gov. Connally; the last blasted through the president's head.

Using mounted cameras and three video screens, a visitor can imagine the trajectory of the second bullet as if it were fired being from Oswald's hideout in the Texas School Book Depository vs. the so-called grassy knoll or a nearby overpass.

The shots fired from the grassy knoll and overpass would have missed the mark, but not one from the sixth floor of the depository.

"The aim from the beginning was to lay out the evidence in a way to explain it," said Evan Laine, director of the university's law and society program.

The exhibition, underwritten by a $100,000 grant from the PNC Foundation, was a collaborative effort between students and professors of architecture, design, and law.

At first, the designers thought they would create a more traditional exhibit using models, photographs, and other archival materials from Specter's collection.

But students suggested a more immersive experience.

"Students thought we should put the visitor in the place of Arlen Specter," said David Kratzer, associate professor of architecture. And that meant exploring and experiencing not only the single-shooter theory, but others as well.

"We let people reach their own conclusion, even though Specter went to his grave with the single-bullet conclusion," said Frank Baseman, an associate professor of graphic design.

Stephen Spinelli Jr., president of the university, said that when he sat in the model car for the first time, imagining the bullet coming from different angles, he felt a sense of going back in time.

"This forces you to think about it as Oswald, as Kennedy, and as Specter," he said.

Spinelli, 58, said he was an 8-year-old having lunch at school when the principal announced that Kennedy had been shot.

"Time stopped in your head," he said.

Ted Nicholas, 23, who graduated last May with a degree in architecture from the university, said working on the exhibit brought him closer to understanding how the assassination was a defining moment for his parents' generation.

"It's what 9/11 was to us," he said.

Taylor Klemm, a fifth-year architecture student who also worked on the exhibit, said Kennedy's assassination "wasn't personal" to him before. And of the many conspiracy theories, he said, "The lines were blurred."

Working on the exhibit, he comes down more on the side of the single bullet. "After this," Klemm said, "the lines are much more clearly drawn."

The exhibition is free and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. To schedule individual or group tours, call 215-951-0489 or e-mail spectercenter@philau.edu.


215-854-5659 @j_linq


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