On April 25, 2013, Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama joined more than 10,000 other guests on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. That dedication was the culmination of great effort, and the beginning of a great mission for the 13th presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.
The process of choosing a location for the Library started years before the dedication. Several Texas institutions submitted proposals; but in the end, President Bush chose Southern Methodist University. SMU put forth an excellent plan detailing both the location of the facility and ways the various institutions could work together. Also, the Bush family appreciated the high quality of SMU as an institution of learning, as First Lady Laura Bush obtained her degree in education there in 1968. An academic institution of 11,000 students near downtown Dallas, SMU has proven to be a significant partner. Every day, the Library works closely with SMU students and faculty on a wide range of activities.
After the location was chosen, the private George W. Bush Foundation was responsible for funding, hiring, and overseeing those involved in design and construction. Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, was hired as the architect. The PRD Group was brought on board as the exhibit design firm. Later, Manhattan Construction was hired to build the facility, and Design and Production Incorporated (D&P) was contracted to oversee fabrications and installation of exhibitions. The facility received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification for design and construction; the first presidential library and museum to do so.
Although this work was overseen by the foundation, the National Archives was fully represented as a member of the team throughout the entire design and construction process. The facility that resulted from this collaboration is two buildings merged into one. Roughly half is the presidential library and museum administered by NARA. The other half includes spaces for the private Bush Foundation, which includes the Bush Institute, and offices for the President and Mrs. Bush. Library staff members and materials moved from a temporary facility in Lewisville, Texas to the new, permanent facility starting in November 2012.
The primary mission of every presidential library is providing information, and at the heart of that mission are the library’s archival collections. The Bush Library has an immense set of materials. First, what differentiates the Bush Library collections from other presidential libraries is the size of its electronic records archive. The Library has 80 terabytes of electronic information, including 200 million emails. If these emails were printed, they would total more than 1 billion pages. Second, the textual collection consists of roughly 70 million pages of paper records. This collection includes not only Bush’s presidential records but also his gubernatorial records, which the Library holds in partnership with the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Third, the audio-visual archives is enormous, including 4 million photographs and roughly 60,000 audio and video records. The Bush administration converted to digital photography in 2005, so this presidential library has many more photographs than any of its predecessors.
This immense volume of materials provides a wonderful resource for research, but also poses a challenge for the National Archives. For example, due to the volume of electronic records, when researchers were first permitted to make Freedom of Information Act requests to view Bush presidential records in January 2014, more records were requested within the first week than have been processed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 25 years.
Gifts to President and Mrs. Bush
Additionally, the Library maintains approximately 43,000 artifacts, primarily foreign and domestic gifts given to the President and Mrs. Bush, and other items obtained throughout the presidency at events and during trips. Most famously, perhaps, the Library has the bullhorn used by President Bush during his visit to the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These artifacts document the American experience and are used extensively in the Library’s permanent and special exhibits.
Public & Education Programs
Another way the Bush Library provides information is through public and education programs. Through teacher workshops, the creation of classroom materials, and other innovative programs, the Library has become a resource for students, teachers, and other education professionals. All these activities are geared toward helping teachers do their incredibly important work by providing materials and ideas for education their students while meeting the standards they must attain. These programs center naturally on the teaching of history and civics, but also more fundamentally, on the importance of primary sources in education and researching. Also, the Library has started efforts designed to combine the teaching of civics and history with the very important topics of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.
White House Situation Room
One unique educational resource at the Library is available only because the Bush administration undertook a renovation of the White House Situation Room, or Sit Room. As renovations were underway, the former Conference Room and Command Room were saved for the future presidential library. Now the historic Conference Room has been reconstructed at the Bush Library. The Command Room was shipped to the Reagan Library, where it, too, has been reconstructed. Already, students are using the Conference Room at the Bush Library as a classroom. But soon, the Conference Room and the Command Room will be connected through technology. Using those spaces at the two libraries, the students, doing simulations in which they act like members of the administration, will collaborate to resolve a crisis. This exercise is very useful in and of itself, but having it take place in the actual historic room from the White House adds authenticity and tremendous energy for students and teachers alike.
The third way the Bush Library provides information is through its permanent and special exhibits. Since opening to the public on May 1, 2013, more than 700,000 people have toured the museum. From the beginning, it was decided the galleries should not be a strictly chronological history of the administration, but instead focus on how the key ideas or principles of freedom, responsibility, opportunity, and compassion were put into practice by the President and Mrs. Bush. Almost every section of the gallery has an interactive component of some type, encouraging visitors to explore and gather more information.
The exhibition has many highlights, including a section on the President’s domestic policy that suddenly ends as visitors turn a corner and see a 22-foot piece of steel from the World Trade Center, surrounded by videos and names of those killed on September 11, 2001. Another part of the exhibit focuses on the War on Terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and features an interactive table that allows guests to see a range of documents, videos, and photographs. A full-scale replica of the Oval Office anchors a section on life in the White House. The Decision Points Theater is another very popular part of the exhibit. In this theater, visitors choose from one of four scenarios: the invasion of Iraq, the “surge” in Iraq, the financial crisis, and Hurricane Katrina. Guests may act as the president and make decisions based on conflicting advice from a wide range of sources. This exercise allows the Library to present the debates on major events in the Bush Administration and to show how all leaders must make decisions based on the information they have in hand and the principles they hold dear.
The Bush Foundation, after it gifted the library and museum to NARA, has continued to support a variety of library activities. For example, the Library mounts at least two special exhibits every year. One is always a holiday exhibit that follows chronologically the holiday themes from the Bush White House. The other is on some topic of relevance to the Bushes, the Bush Administration, the presidency, and/or American history. Thus far, the Bush Foundation has funded all the Library’s special exhibits including as The Art of Leadership, which focused on President Bush’s use of personal diplomacy and featured portraits he painted of many world leaders.
The Foundation also operates the George W. Bush Institute, a policy center devoted to carrying on the President and Mrs. Bush’s work in certain key areas such as human freedom and education. The institute conducts research and undertakes projects in the United States and abroad, and it often partners with the Library. For example, the two institutions recently teamed up to create curriculum by using interviews the institute has conducted with dissidents from around the world.
Of course, the Library’s greatest partners are President and Mrs. Bush. Without their service and their inspiration, the Library would not exist. They are tremendously supportive.
Every day, nearly 40 National Archives employees, plus student workers and interns, contractors, and more than 325 volunteers and docents work to ensure the Bush Library and Museum fulfills its very important mission. All of us are proud to carry on the great tradition of presidential libraries and to preserve and make available information on a presidency that truly changed the world.
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