Presidential Museums of Texas
Written by: Erin Ferris
“I hope that visitors who come here will achieve a closer understanding of the presidency and that young people will get a clearer comprehension of what this nation tried to do in an eventful period of its history.” -LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON
Prior to the mid-1900s, documents, artifacts, and gifts of state associated with a particular presidency belonged to the president himself. Many left the White House with the president, while others were destroyed or shared (somewhat unceremoniously and arbitrarily) with libraries or historical societies. It was not until Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to consign his presidential papers and effects to the American people that the United States government created laws to protect these valuable historical pieces.
Since that time, presidential libraries and museums have been tasked with preserving the archives related to each presidency, upholding the legacies of those who governed from within the Oval Office and creating a connection between the nation’s past, present, and future. As presidents work on behalf of all citizens, these institutions and the significant history they hold, belong and are accessible to everyone and have no political affiliation.
As home to Lyndon B. Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, Texas proudly hosts the presidential libraries and museums built in honor of these three United States leaders. All offer access to permanent interactive exhibits, innovative temporary exhibits, public programming, and educational events, as well as document, film, photograph, recording, and transcript archives with the goal of sharing the life and times of its president.
“It is all here: the story of our time with the bark off. . .This library will show the facts, not just the joy and triumphs, but the sorrow and failures, too.” -LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON
Elected to the office of vice president in 1960, Lyndon Baines Johnson became the 36th president following the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963. He is remembered most prominently for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Great Society social service programs aimed at eliminating poverty and racial inequality, and for expanding the
United States’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum is located in Austin on the University of Texas campus. Designed by famed architect Gordon Bunshaft, the ten-story building is perhaps best known for its Great Hall that, across four stories, showcases the archive collection and displays a beautiful mural of photos etched into massive magnesium plates. Though the museum first opened in 1971, the current core exhibits opened in 2012 on what would have been Lady Bird Johnson’s 100th birthday.
The permanent exhibits and gallery spaces invite visitors to immerse themselves in the story behind LBJ. November 22, 1963, provides a somber view into the transition of power to LBJ after President Kennedy’s assassination, and The Legacy Gallery addresses the overarching significance LBJ’s legislation had on the United States once he took office that fateful day. Social Justice Gallery highlights why LBJ brought about civil rights, voting rights, and Great Society legislation, and The Vietnam Conflict details LBJ’s role in the Vietnam War. Additional permanent exhibits offer visitors an opportunity to gain a feel for where LBJ spent much of his time: The White House Years gallery displays gifts, artifacts, and memorabilia collected during LBJ’s tenure; the Oval Office exhibit allows a glimpse into LBJ’s workspace; and The Presidential Limousine display shows off the custom black stretch limousine that, while not armored, bullet-proof, or bomb-proof, was as high-tech as the technology of the time allowed.
Not to be missed is Humor and the Presidency. LBJ had a reputation for telling fantastical stories and hilarious jokes, and this exhibit, which features political cartoons and a life-sized animatronic LBJ, is a tribute to his famous sense of humor.
“Let future generations understand the burden and the blessings of freedom. Let them say we stood where duty required us to stand.” -George H.W. Bush
Elected as Ronald Reagan’s vice president in 1980, George Herbert Walker Bush served in that role for eight years prior to his 1988 election as the 41st president. He held the office for four years and is best known for his handling of foreign affairs related to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is located in College Station on the Texas A&M University campus. Dedicated and opened to the public in 1997, the museum underwent a near-complete renovation ten years later and reopened during a ceremony at which former President Bush arrived via parachute jump.
The museum’s core exhibits guide visitors through former President Bush’s upbringing and the path his life took as he became a military man, college student, husband, father, businessman, congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president, and eventually president. Visitors can tour replicas of the Oval Office, Bush’s Camp David office, the White House Press Room, the Situation Room, and a simulated state dinner dining room, then view a World War II Avenger Torpedo Bomber, a 1947 Studebaker, President Bush’s beloved speedboat, Fidelity, and a piece of the famed Berlin Wall. Additional permanent exhibits delve deeply into the efforts made by the
Bush Administration to stop Saddam Hussein and liberate Kuwait, while other galleries cover lighter content such as the Bush and Pierce family traditions, symbols of the presidency, and gifts of state from nations across the globe. A special section of the museum is dedicated to Barbara Bush, who as a first lady and the mother of a president used her positions to tirelessly advocate for literacy as well as AIDS awareness and prevention. She and President Bush are buried on the grounds along with their daughter Robin.
“Use power to help people. For we are given power not to advance our own purposes nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power and it is to serve people.” -GEORGE W. BUSH
The eldest son of George H. W. Bush, George Walker Bush followed in his father’s footsteps to the highest office in the land. He was elected as the 43rd president in 2000 and is best known for leading the country’s response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and initiating the Iraq War in 2003.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center is located in Dallas on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Uniquely designed and built to be as environmentally conscious as possible, the Bush Presidential Center building and grounds are a nod to former President and First Lady Bush’s advocacy for conservation and sustainability. The beautifully cultivated fifteen-acre park surrounding the center includes landscapes native to Texas and is home to a wide variety of Texas wildlife. The park remains open to the public from sunrise to sunset year-round, though spring and fall offer opportunities to view stunning bluebonnet fields and the monarch butterfly migrations.
Dedicated on April 25 and opened on May 1, 2013, the Bush Presidential Center is one of the nation’s newest presidential libraries and museums. The center’s permanent exhibits seek to unpack the complexities within Bush’s presidency, detailing the many challenges he faced during his eight years in office as well as the principles that guided his policy and legislative decisions. As the defining day of the Bush presidency, September 11, 2001 carefully explains the catastrophic events, highlights the heroic events, and honors those who lost their lives that day. Among the museum’s many artifacts are a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, the megaphone former President Bush used when addressing the crowd at Ground Zero, and many of the letters President Bush received from American citizens in the days and weeks that followed. The Interactive Decision Points Theater allows visitors to play the role of president; visitors listen to advisors provide critical information, assess the situations, and make their own decisions about major crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the conflict in Iraq. The Bush Center also includes an exact replica of the Oval Office during former President Bush’s tenure and exhibits about life in the White House, the famous first pets, state dinners, and life for the Bush family at Camp David and the Bush Ranch.
All three presidential libraries and museums offer opportunities for visitors to better understand the context and events of these presidencies. From field trips, group tours, and scout days to storytelling reenactments, summer camps, and holiday festivities, there are ways for everyone to feel a part of the history. As former First Lady Laura Bush so eloquently stated, “This will always be a place that welcomes each visitor with open arms.”