By Claudia Hurst
Earlier this month, I visited the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s special exhibit, Freedom Matters, and spoke with the Jewish executive director and community member, David J. Kramer.
Freedom is a term that has defined the United States since its creation. The goal of the Revolutionary War, the insistence for slaves to be free and the challenge to accept all individuals as they are: Freedom is at the core of our country. The Freedom Matters exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center highlights the ways freedom has guided action in the United States.
The exhibit begins in a room that focuses on asking patrons: “What is freedom?” While walking through this room, you can hear international leaders responding to the question. The next room in the exhibit poses the question, “Where does freedom come from?” with answers from important figures lit up on the walls.
Instead of reading facts and searching for artifacts, the unique entrance to this exhibit forces visitors to reflect on the way they might respond to these questions. This interactive process transforms visitors from guests to active participants.
The next room displays what many people consider to be the focus of the exhibit: a 14th-century copy of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was written to limit the rule of the monarchy in Great Britain. This document was later used by the colonists to justify their separation from the king. The Bush Museum illustrates the relationship between this artifact and its subsequent impact by displaying the rare document right outside the exhibit’s room about the American experiment.
The largest room in the Freedom Matters exhibit is dedicated to understanding the American experiment.
The first part of the room houses first editions of Federalist I and II and an 1831 version of the Declaration of Independence. These rare foundational documents introduce the American experiment through the eyes of the country’s founding fathers.
While exploring this room, a museum educator on the floor explained how the Bush Center takes this topic one step further by showcasing all the times the “American experiment” has strayed from the values it was meant to exemplify. The underlying message of this room asks: When the American experiment has strayed, do we put it back on the right track?
Featuring artifacts from the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, Indian citizenship, marriage equality and more, this room takes visitors from the creation of the country through injustices and challenges the United States has created and attempted to resolve.
This was the most meaningful aspect of the exhibit. After I spoke with Kramer, it appeared to me that this message was at the forefront of this exhibit’s creation.
He explained, “I think [this exhibit] is an important reminder of our evolution and how we have addressed problems and shortcomings. It is not to say that everything was perfect from day one. In fact, the term ‘striving to be a more perfect union’ derives from recognition that we are not perfect and we’re constantly striving to improve our system.”
Kramer served in the State Department during President George W. Bush’s administration for eight years. Following his work for President Bush, Kramer ran Freedom House in Washington, D.C. He moved to the Bush Institute in March 2022 to be the managing director of global policy. In October 2022, the previous executive director, Holly Kuzmich, left the Bush Institute and Kramer was asked to take her place.
“Holly did a fantastic job here. She left the organization in terrific shape. I was very fortunate to follow in her shoes and I’ve enjoyed every moment,” Kramer said.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center encompasses both a remarkable museum and a public policy institute. The institute is rooted in principles that President and Mrs. Bush represent: opportunity, freedom, accountability and compassion. The institute’s mission is to apply these values through domestic and global policy.
“The first pillar is our opportunity work [which] includes economic growth and opportunity, immigration, veterans and military families and education. Then we have a pillar of work we call ‘Strengthening our Democracy’ that covers our leadership programs and focuses on our own democracy and the challenges we face. The third pillar of work, which we call ‘Advancing Free Societies,’ covers freedom and democracy.” Kramer explained.
As a connected network, the institutional values of the institute filter into the topics presented in the museum side of the Bush Center.
“We realize how important our democracy is, how important it is for people to understand how we got to where we are,” Kramer said.
The Freedom Matters exhibit houses a unique opportunity for Dallas residents to see rare documents from the creation of the United States and reflect on the values this country was built to exemplify.
Kramer was not at liberty to disclose the exhibit that the Bush Center will be showcasing when Freedom Matters closes on Dec. 31, 2023. However, after witnessing the extensive preparation that goes into each of these exhibits, I am confident that the next exhibit will be an important exhibition to visit in the new year.
“Stay tuned. We have to keep you on the edge of your seat!”