President Bush’s presidential library, which will be housed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has received significant criticism because of an attached institute — independent of the university — that will sponsor programs designed to “promote the vision of the president” and “celebrate” Bush’s presidency. Even former Bush adviser Karl Rove has signed on as a “critical resource” of administration history.
Continuing to ensure that partisan praise of Bush will trump academic scholarship in the library, advisers now say they “will rely chiefly” on the design firm PRD Group, rather than historians, to showcase Bush’s policies as president. The Dallas Morning News reports:
Bush advisers say they plan to consult historians but will rely chiefly on the veteran design firm they hired to create a museum to showcase his life, works and policies.
Some who’ve studied presidential centers say the lack of independent voices in the design-exhibit process risks turning the library into little more than a promotional venue.
Harry Middleton, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library, explained that the LBJ library learned the important lesson of having “objective,” “outside experts” (particularly when advising the library of a president defined by an unpopular war):
[Middleton] said he and fellow staffers in the 1971 opening of the LBJ museum at the University of Texas at Austin were too close to the former president to give a highly critical account of the controversies that defined his tenure – especially the Vietnam War.
It wasn’t until 1982, when historians and other outside experts helped redesign the museum, that it fully explored how the war split the country. […]
The second effort, made after LBJ died, was more objective than the first, Mr. Middleton said, convincing him that an advisory panel should have been used at the start.
Referring to the decision to hire the design firm, SMU history department chair Kathleen Wellman said “an interpretive planner whose work will [have to] meet with Mr. Bush’s approval is not likely to involve historians. We do not seek the approval of the subjects of our work.”
A recent survey found that 98 percent of historians consider Bush’s presidency to be a failure and 61 percent said he is the worst president in history. So, it seems unlikely that Bush will take Middleton’s advice seeing as he has difficulty admitting mistakes.