What have you learned about Nixon that's surprised you?
Perhaps one of the hardest challenges [for the exhibits is capturing] the climate of that period. If you're under a certain age, you will not understand what it was like -- emotional and at times strident demonstrations, a seemingly endless war in Vietnam, a feeling the government was lying, you don't think your rights are being honored, and you may be drafted to die in a war you don't understand and are not old enough to vote for. On the other hand, you have a leadership class [from the World War II era] that does not understand this resentment. And then you add a president with a complex personality, and the outcome was incendiary.
How does the funding work?
The federal government pays for the lights, the utilities, the staff. There's no money from Congress for public programming or for exhibits. You get a museum, but if you want to change that museum, you raise the money yourself or go to the foundation for money. In 2007, when I invited [historian and Nixon critic] Elizabeth Drew to the library, the Nixon Foundation began shutting off funding for public programming and exhibits and by 2009 it had completely shut it off. Unlike other [presidential] libraries, I don't get any money from the foundation.
Because they objected?
You'd have to ask them. I have a big-tent philosophy. When I started inviting people who were left of center and I think some centrists, I got enormous pushback. I kept doing it because it's my job. What I did instead [was] raise money. We have been entrepreneurial and frugal.
What are some other big changes?
We replaced some panels that we found polemical or historically inaccurate. The only permanent gallery we've altered completely is the Watergate gallery. It's expensive to update technology, and to do the entire museum will cost about $10 million. We'll give [visitors] useful portals; you have the opportunity to experience iPad history.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.