Each time I go home, I try to have an adventure at some attraction the DFW area has to offer. Last time I made it to the Perot Museum. This time I visited the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU.
Whether you agree with his politics or you think he was an idiot, the permanent exhibition space is about what happened during the eight years he led the nation with all of its ups and downs. Don’t forget that within the first year of his presidency tragedy struck the United States like no one was expecting or could have seen coming.
Personally, I don’t agree with every choice he made as president, but I think he was a great leader when the nation needed one and some of his initiatives were exactly right. However, this post isn’t about his politics or policies; it is about the experience I had at the presidential library and museum.
There are only 13 official presidential libraries part of the National Archives. President Franklin Roosevelt started the presidential library system, but his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, also has a library and museum as part of the system (and one that is part of Stanford). You can read about the collection of institutions here.
I’ve been to one other presidential library, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, when I was a boy touring with the Texas Boys Choir. W’s opened on the SMU campus in 2013 as the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which in addition to the museum houses the archives and library and the George W. Bush Institute, a NGO working toward solutions to solve national and international issues.
Since I wasn’t doing research or working on solving any world problems my visit focused on the permanent and temporary exhibitions of the museum.
The permanent gallery takes visitors through the terms of President Bush beginning with a lead up to his election and going initiative by initiative through his presidency. Of course a major presence is the story of September 11, 2001 and the nation’s response to that tragedy.
A mangled beam from the towers serves as a focal point surrounded by the names of all the victims of that fateful day. Next to this is a small seating area to watch video coverage from news reports of the next several days and the President’s various appearances and speeches. All I can say is I wish they had tissues for museum visitors. I was not the only one emotionally affected by the exhibit.
Of course what follows is part of the more contested decisions of his leadership, but the story is told well. At one point in the museum there is a space for guests to take their turn making decisions. They are given information and limited time to make a choice of how to act then told what was done and why it was done.
Less serious is the section of museum showcasing life as the head of state. Like other presidential museums, there is a replica of the Oval Office—an iconic space that the President spent much time in. Unlike other recreations of this space, guests are invited in and given practically full reign being able to look around, sit on the furniture and at the desk. We were told by docents that this was a special request from George W. to let people go in and experience the office.
Off of the real Oval Office is the storied White House Rose Garden; off of the replica Oval Office is the Texas Rose Garden, a scaled replica using Texas flora that guests are welcome to take a stroll in.
This section of the exhibition also has memorabilia about Mrs. Bush’s outfits, hosting official events at the White House, and their pets. Also around one of the corners is a video about the President’s Texas ranch where he often entertained dignitaries. I was very impressed how the Bushes had worked so hard to restore the native Texas prairie to their ranch land. It was stunningly beautiful when in full bloom.
Scattered throughout the exhibition space and in the lobby reception area are tokens and gifts from other nations and heads of state to the President and country including clothing, handicrafts, traditional arts, fine metalwork, and a lion. In the exhibition these artifacts help tell the story of being a head of state and international politics.
Across the Hall of Freedom, a really awesome focal point in the museum is the temporary exhibit hall. Last year (2014) for the holidays, the museum put on an exhibit called “All Creatures Great and Small” that featured recreations of their White House holiday décor from 2002.
That year their decorations centered on the theme of presidential or White House animals. So, the decorators created paper mache animals including dogs, cats, sheep, horses, raccoons, an alligator and more. There was also a recreation of the main tree from that Christmas, which was decorated with hand-made native bird ornaments from all U.S. states and territories.
Hall of Freedom
At the center of the museum is the Hall of Freedom that rises up letting lots of natural light flood into the space. On all four walls is a HD video screen with images and animation bringing a life and energy to the space. At regular intervals the 360 degree display has a short presentation. Being the holidays, the one I saw featured snow and the Bushes wishing us a happy holidays.
Surrounding the center is a lovely park, most of which is planted with native Texas plants recreating a lovely vignette of Texas wildness. Though it was brown when I was there, I could imagine the beauty of it in all seasons. This park isn’t large, but there are some walking paths and benches and a small amphitheater tucked in a little corner.
The museum is easily accessible since it is built on the edge of the SMU campus right above Central Expressway in North Dallas. It is a few minutes north of downtown and close to other freeways as well. The museum is open all but three days a year, 9-5 Mon-Sat and 12-5 Sun. Admission is $16 for adults, but with my non-SMU college I.D. I got in for $13.
If you find yourself in the DFW Metroplex wondering what to do, make a few hours to visit the one of 13 presidential libraries in the country, that of the 43rd person to serve as POTUS. You can use the experience to remember, learn and gain understanding and respect. Or you can use it to guffaw, criticize and be a sideline coach with hindsight. Either way, everyone can enjoy a visit to this wonderful museum.