I’ve always wondered what a Presidential Library is and how it works. We have one here in Dallas, the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum at the Southern Methodist University campus. The Library was officially opened in May 2013. Why SMU? Because the university outbid other local universities, such as Baylor or Texas A&M, with its proposal.
I learned that a Presidential Library is an archive and museum at the same time, which preserves the written record and history of US presidents; that is, documents and artifacts written, received and owned by the presidents. They also organize special exhibits. Presidential Libraries are privately funded – and probably looking out for donations on a regular basis -, although they are managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.
SMU campus is very easy to get to, both by car and public transport. I drove and paid the 7 dollar parking fee. I had to go through security: a bag scanner and a metal detector. I was wearing a studded belt, which I was politely asked to remove, otherwise the metal detector would have gone bonkers. The entrance hall is light and airy, with lots of natural light. I paid my 17 dollar entrance fee and started my visit.
Along the walls of the circular hall are the gifts that President Bush, his wife or even Condoleezza Rice received during both his presidencies. Those presents belong to the American people and were divided geographically by continent. There were some amazing pieces of jewellery that I would have been loath to give up.
The collection is divided into themed exhibits that sum up the issues and events of his administration, such as the war against terror, 9/11, programs like No Child Left Behind or my absolute favourite, a full-size reproduction of the Oval Office.
I must admit that the main draw for me was the special exhibition devoted to the late Oscar de la Renta, Five Decades of Style. Laura Bush wore his designs on many occasions, as well as other First Ladies like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Hollywood stars. The gowns and suits were divided into themes: the gardens that influenced his style, Spanish art and culture (he lived in Madrid), red carpet, day wear, his first designs.
I was looking at what probably was my favourite dress when a security guard walked up to me. He greeted me and said “I just want you to enjoy yourself. Take your time, enjoy yourself.” I told him that I was. He then proceeded to give me fashion advice. A surreal but thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The other object that caught my attention was a length of twisted iron I beams from the Twin Towers. As I was inspecting them closely, a security guard told me I could touch them if I wanted to. I did. She then said that it is believed they came from a place close to the point of impact because of the way they’re twisted. Unless you’ve been there, nothing can bring home to you the real dimension of such an awful tragedy. Touching the beams brought me fractionally closer to understanding it – but not quite.