The Bush Center

By Juliana Mudd

Explore the presidential library and First Ladies special exhibit

Maybe you’re not a history buff — or maybe the thought of hearing anything related to politics makes you want to run the other way. If either of these situations applies to you, rest assured that you can still enjoy a visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. In fact, a concerted effort to appeal to and inform a diverse audience is one of the museum’s goals.

“We strive to offer educational programs and exhibits for not only students but all members of our community, about American history and the presidency,” said Bobbi Gruner, public affairs and marketing manager for the museum. “A better understanding of history provides each of us a clearer perspective on the future.”

The nation’s 13th presidential library and museum recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of both its dedication, April 25, and its opening to the public, May 1. It is part of the Bush Center, which also includes the Bush Institute for leadership and policy advancement. The Bush Center is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The impressive library building, featuring elements of both classical and modern architecture, houses a permanent exhibit detailing the events and policies of the presidency of George W. Bush, as well as a space for temporary exhibits. Additionally, the floor underneath the museum exhibits is home to the archives, which house an abundance of documents and information from the 43rd president’s time in office.

“The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is home to 80 terabytes of digital information, including more than 200 million emails, 70 million pages of textual archives, and about 4 million photographs and audio-visual archives,” Gruner said.

Many of the textual resources have been digitized and are available for viewing online. Scholars and other visitors who wish to view documents from the archives in person can also make an appointment to do so in the research room of the library.

The large entrance hall, called Freedom Hall, is lined with glass cases, which enclose some of the dozens of gifts given to former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush by foreign leaders during Bush’s two terms as president. Among the items on display are a diamond and sapphire jewelry set gifted to Mrs. Bush by the king of Saudi Arabia, a silver and amber ship sculpture from the president of Lithuania, and even a set of steel dog bowls for the first pets given by American citizens.

An interesting fact about gifts given to the president for those who, like me, weren’t aware: the museum’s website helpfully notes that “When a President accepts a gift from a foreign Head of State, it becomes the property of the American people, as the President works on our behalf.” If the president wishes to keep any of the gifts he receives while in office, he must, in most cases, purchase them. If he chooses not to, “they are automatically transferred to the National Archives.”

On the left side of Freedom Hall is the entrance to the permanent exhibit. Captioned photos accompanied by quotes, campaign literature and screens playing video clips of interviews and news footage briskly guide visitors through the early life and political career of Bush, up to his campaign for and election to the presidency in 2000, including the uncertainty of election night.

Continuing a roughly chronological pattern that flows easily through the exhibit are a series of stations depicting some of the major policies that the Bush administration prioritized, including tax reform, education and the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. This section of the exhibit also features a station dedicated to Laura Bush’s work on literacy, complete with books she included on a reading list published on the White House website.

Each of these displays has hands-on, interactive elements, and many have touch screens offering the option to click and learn more, so that visitors can control the level of information they receive on a given topic. It’s well-suited for school field trips (I saw no fewer than three different school groups during my visit).

More personal touches are also present in this part of the exhibit, notably George W. Bush’s collection of signed baseballs and a baseball bat “signed by 46 out of 62 living members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” reads the display.

As a defining event both of the Bush presidency and of contemporary American history, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are afforded significant space in the exhibit. Walls bear the names of those who were lost. Screens play video footage of news reports and of the attacks themselves and run through slideshows of photos showing the devastation.

A timeline with screens playing video and news clips of actions taken and appearances made by President Bush in the days immediately following 9/11 stands across from cases holding handwritten letters of condolence from both children and leaders around the world. But the centerpiece of the 9/11 section of the exhibit is a twisted piece of metal suspended from the ceiling by cables: an actual steel beam from the World Trade Center.

“The New York Port Authority donated this beam to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum,” Gruner said. “Engineers who have studied the steel — known as a C11 panel — speculate it is the remnant of a triple-beam and crossbeam section from upper floors of the World Trade Center.” This piece of history is only partially enclosed, and visitors may touch it as they make their way through the exhibit.

The permanent exhibit continues with displays detailing the war on terrorism, foreign policy, foreign aid and life in the White House. Visitors may enter a replica Oval Office, take a walk outside in a replica White House Rose Garden and experience the Decision Points theater. In this interactive exhibit, visitors are placed in the shoes of the president as they hear counsel from presidential advisers regarding the various ways to respond to crises and important events. Then they select on individual screens what their personal responses would be.

A particular highlight of visiting the Bush Museum is the current temporary exhibit, running through October 1, on first ladies, called “First Ladies: Style of Influence.” This exhibit was born from a research report conducted by the First Ladies Initiative of the Bush Institute, entitled “A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies.”

Natalie Gonnella-Platts, deputy director of the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute, pointed to the “sizable gap in research” about first ladies, explaining that the report addressed that dearth.

“The study explores the leadership potential of the first lady role, the common and uncommon challenges women face in realizing that potential and how first ladies overcome those challenges to effect change on their chosen issues.”

Naturally, the study recognizes that a first lady’s “chosen issue” is somewhat more of a modern iteration of the role, and, so as not to leave out the first ladies of early American history, the exhibit identifies four broad categories into which a first lady’s work might fall: hostess, teammate, champion and policy advocate. The evolution from hostess to policy advocate is generally a chronological trend, with earlier first ladies fulfilling primarily the duties of a hostess, and more modern first ladies championing issues and becoming forces for policy change. However, the four roles are fluid and complementary and by no means mutually exclusive, and the layout of the exhibit reflects that.

The front room of the exhibit features a small seating area in front of a movie screen that plays an introductory video on a loop. The video describes the four roles fulfilled by first ladies as identified by the “Role Without a Rulebook” report and contains clips of interviews with Laura Bush.

Behind the large front room, four smaller connected rooms explore in greater detail the four roles. The setup is simple: the likeness of a first lady (in many cases a reproduction of her official portrait), hangs on the wall, accompanied by information about her family and educational background, as well as significant or interesting contributions. Each of the rooms has several such likenesses, highlighting first ladies who exemplified that role. Martha Washington, for example, can be found in the hostess room; as the very first first lady, she is remembered for the large numbers of social gatherings she would organize for foreign dignitaries.

Many women are represented in more than one room, as the exhibit acknowledges the overlap in the four roles identified. Laura Bush — this being the Bush Museum — is in all four rooms. The contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt are considered in three out of the four rooms (teammate, champion and policy advocate), and Michelle Obama makes an appearance in both the champion and policy advocate rooms for her “Let’s Move!” program and her work with military families.

George W. Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, was one of only two women to serve as both first lady and mother to a president. She is found in the champion and teammate rooms.

“The champion gallery underscores her enduring commitment to literacy both as first lady and in her continued advocacy-action through the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy,” Gonnella-Platts said. “The teammate gallery spotlights Mrs. Bush’s notable appreciation of family and the importance of relationships in life. This gallery also contains several artifacts related to Mrs. Bush, including the blue skirt suit she wore on the cover of ‘Millie’s Book’ with a copy of that children’s title.”

Historical artifacts are displayed throughout each of the rooms, many on loan from the other presidential museums throughout the country.

“Each of the artifacts in the exhibit serve as an entry point to a larger story about how each of these women uniquely approached the role of first lady and made a difference in the history of our country and the wider world,” Gonnella-Platts said.

Some of the items on display include a radio given to Eleanor Roosevelt, who made hundreds of radio appearances as first lady; several tokens of recognition given to Rosalynn Carter for her work on mental health; and somewhat in keeping with the tendency of first ladies to be influencers of fashion, the red dress worn by Michelle Obama when she was photographed for Parade magazine.

Above and beyond its role as an educational community resource that provides an honest and engaging look at history, what the Bush Museum accomplishes so well — both in the permanent exhibit and in the temporary first ladies exhibit — is offering visitors humanized portraits of the 43rd president and of the many first ladies who influenced American history. So often when politics are involved, it is all too easy to forget that there are also people involved — people who love America and dedicate years of service to bettering the lives of American citizens. Take the trip, learn some history and be reminded.

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is located at 2943 SMU Boulevard in Dallas. Parking is available onsite or on the SMU campus for a fee. For more information, including admission prices, hours of operation and details about the museum exhibits, visit georgewbushlibrary.smu.edu.

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