A presidential library is meant to be a celebration of the commander in chief’s tenure. A capstone to a president’s years in office, the libraries receive much fanfare surrounding the structure’s design, but the contents of the public exhibitions aren’t typically scrutinized the same way. Until now.
Ellen Chenoweth, an artist who primarily works in dance and choreography, noticed that the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas was fraught with omissions and took various liberties with his legacy. So she decided to correct the record with an augmented reality app. Visitors to the library can download a free app from Layar, point their smartphone at 10 “trigger images,” and read a more balanced view of the information presented. For example, a panel about tax cuts Bush enacted framed the policy as being good for families and helping to usher in a period of economic growth, but it did not discuss the disproportional benefit to the top 1% of earners. Nor did it acknowledge the budget deficits that ensued following the cuts.
A couple of events inspired the George W. Bush–Presidential Library Augmented Reality Project. One of her friends, Adam Weinert, staged an AR dance installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then Chenoweth’s mother, who lives in Texas, visited the library and was horrified at the framing of Bush’s presidency.
“My mom’s kind of feisty,” Chenoweth says. “She was worked up and appalled about seeing stories about Bush’s ‘heroic’ response to Hurricane Katrina [editor’s note: The administration’s actual response was widely criticized as a failure], about him being an ‘environmentalist.’ She was up in arms at this.”
Chenoweth was also surprised that Vice President Dick Cheney wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the exhibitions, even though he influenced many of the policies implemented between 2000 and 2008. She doesn’t view the project as an attack on George W. Bush’s presidency; rather, it’s a different interpretation of the “official” record on view at the library. She also wrote about the discrepancies on the project’s website.
“If you went though the library and you were a young person or weren’t around for those years, you’d have no hint that was any debate or controversy in those eight years,” Chenoweth says. “He was a hugely controversial president, and the installations scrape away all the interesting parts about it. Although I focused on Bush, there are 12 other presidential libraries. The system is funded by public and private money, and they have this hybrid nature where they’re trying to serve different purposes.”
Chenoweth’s project offers a poignant lesson about how we should interpret what we read and see. “It’s healthy to have a degree of skepticism about media, the information that surrounds us, the sources, and the purposes that might be behind what’s presented,” Chenoweth says. “That’s a necessary attitude to have.”