[NCH] NARA transfer of museum to Bush Presidential Library Foundation

Dear NCH Member,

Recently, the National Coalition for History (NCH) intervened in a fast-developing situation seeking to delay the transfer of control of the museum at the George W. Bush Presidential Library from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to the George W. Bush Foundation. It was brought to public attention in an article in The Atlantic written by former-Director of the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, and professor of history at NYU, Tim Naftali.

NCH worked with stakeholders and other coalition members, most notably the Society of American Archivists and the Association for Documentary Editing, in urging the House Oversight and Reform Committee to request that NARA place a freeze on implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) pending further review by the panel. NCH has reached out to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and asked them to intervene as well.

On June 30, the committee sent NARA a letter to that effect. On July 15, NARA responded to the committee stating that the agency, “has already paused any official action to implement the proposal.” However, under the terms of the agreement, NARA was allowed to begin the process of transferring management of the museum prior to Congressional approval. That apparently will continue unless Congress disapproves of the agreement.

NCH will be closely monitoring the situation and plans to offer whatever assistance our members can play in finding a solution to ensure that those who visit all presidential museums encounter histories shaped by a professional process that is not unduly influenced by individuals or institutions with a stake in that administration.


Under the Presidential Libraries Act, as amended in 1986, the US government accepts a presidential library and museum facility as a “gift” from a private entity, usually the private presidential foundation. When construction of the facility is finished, control of the library and museum are turned over by the foundation to the federal government, namely NARA.

Presidential libraries are usually bifurcated campuses, shared between NARA and the private presidential foundations. In the archival/research portion of the Library, NARA’s primary role is to store, process and make available to the public the records created by every presidential administration. Presidential records are considered federal property and NARA has complete autonomy over the archival aspects of the facility.

While the museum is also a federal space, where NARA provides all curatorial services and oversees the preservation, storage, and cataloging of museum objects, private presidential foundations have traditionally played a significant role in the museum because Congress doesn’t appropriate any funds for exhibits. (The Library Director, a NARA official, can fund exhibits out of the National Archives Trust Fund but only the Foundations have access to the many millions needed to complete the permanent galleries or to update them). Regardless of who pays for an exhibit, the governing agreements between NARA and the presidential foundations assign NARA not only a shared interest in the content of public history at the Library but final veto power over all exhibits, permanent and temporary, in the museum and the rest of NARA’s spaces on the campus.

There is also a shared role in organizing public events. At most modern presidential libraries, NARA controls a classroom or lecture hall, whereas the presidential foundation operates in its portion of the campus the larger public events space. Historically this has been a source of tension at some Libraries because certain presidential foundations do not wish critics of the former president to be speakers on the shared campus.

Finally, NARA runs the educational programming for the Library and supervises the volunteer or docent organizations. The NARA educational specialist is responsible for devising the interpretative guides and training programs for tour guides and often personally oversees school visits. NARA drafts educational modules for K-12 classrooms, which are available via the web.



In late April, NARA and the Bush Foundation reached an agreement that severs the connection between the Library and the Museum and its classrooms. NARA would retain control of the archival functions on the campus but turn over operation of the museum and, effectively, control over all educational and public programming to the Bush Foundation. This new arrangement would give the Foundation complete control over the exhibits and historical interpretations with no oversight or input from NARA.

As required by law, NARA submitted a Report to Congress, seeking Congressional approval of this material change to the original agreement between NARA and the Bush presidential foundation, which Congress assented to a decade ago. If Congress failed to act within 60 days that Congress was in session, the agreement would go into effect. NARA did not publicize the agreement nor seek input from stakeholders before signing the (MOU) with the Bush Foundation.

The implications of this arrangement could be far-reaching since other presidential museums may seek similar arrangements. Existing museums could be free to interpret the history of an administration in ways that casts the president in the most favorable light without impartial input from historians, political scientists, archivists, and scholars. The once family-owned Nixon Library, which operated as a private library and museum between 1990 and 2007, is a case study of what can happen without a formalized relationship between the private and public sectors who are stewards of our history.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Warm regards,


Lee White
Executive Director
National Coalition for History
Note: During the COVID-19 pandemic, I am working remotely. If you need to reach me, please send an email and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you.

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