When the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened on the campus of Southern Methodist University in the Dallas area, Peter Baker via the New York Times News Service said, “The exhibits are filled with modern gadgetry and 25 different films and interactive videos.” The official brochure handed out at this PLM claims,” The 14,000-square-foot main gallery is framed on four principles….Freedom, Responsibility, Opportunity, and Compassion.” How do you turn interactive videos and buzz-words into a memorable visitor experience?
The 43rd President’s Library & Museum officially opened in April, 2013. Impressively large and understated, its lobby features beautiful presidential gifts. This is the 1st difference from other PLM’s. They tend to display the tea sets and scimitars after reviewing the President’s life and service. The other lobby feature is a 360º video projected on high walls. It’s Texas oriented, which is reasonable since Bush grew up in Midland and now lives in Dallas, has no dialogue, shows images of Washington, DC, then different professions and the military in a careful ethnic mix. Patriotic music fills ears. It’s all pretty but pretty pointless.
The introductory film is a George Bush talkathon that segues into exhibits named A Charge to Keep and Creating Opportunity. Wholesome family images abound with his parents, George and Barbara, prominently, and appropriately, featured, no child left behind, more flag-waving music, etc. Words like SERVICE and FREEDOM burn into visitors’ corneas.
Still looking for something concrete and humanizing, I turned a corner into Responding to September 11, and this PLM quickly became 5 Compass. The names of all 9-11 victims were written on a circular grey wall behind a huge metal Twin Tower fragment. Painful images of that day flashed by as did the familiar video of George Bush receiving the news. It made him seem human, not dismissive as the news media at the time tended to portray him.
By order of the Bushes this is the only PLM where visitors can sit in the Oval Office at a presidential desk that belongs to the people. School groups, parents with children, etc. wait their turn to pose in the desk chair and fantasize about presidential power while their pictures are taken. This feature is very popular.
Another attention-getting display features Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients and the medal itself. Then the Medal of Honor.
There’s a significant focus on quietly elegant Laura Bush, who visited all 50 states and more than 75 countries as First Lady. Then her daughters have their time.
In Decision Points Theater, visitors sit in a conference room, look at news footage of 1 to 4 scenarios, and listen to different points of view about important issues that George Bush dealt with. Then they have 4 minutes to decide what they would do. Before I reached the exit I was challenged to learn what balance of power really means, consider the selection of judges, think about how a President must deal with seemingly endless financial crises, Medicare, etc.
Even those visiting a PLM clearly designed to appeal to modern attention spans affected by video games and too many cable channels get the point.