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The Rotunda of the National Archives displays the country’s most important original documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights (collectively known as the Charters of Freedom). Fourteen document cases trace the story of the creation of the Charters and the ongoing influence these fundamental documents have had on the nation and the world.
It proves to be an unexpectedly thrilling experience to stand among people from all over the world and peer in this dimly lit chamber at page after page of manuscript covered top to bottom in tiny, graceful script, whose forthright declarations founded our country and changed the world. It is gratifying, too, to see the documents given context within the exhibit. For example, one panel points to the role of “founding mothers” like Abigail Adams, who cautioned her husband in a letter, “If perticular [sic] care is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebelion, [sic] and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”
But the wonders don’t end there: On display in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery is the original 1297 Magna Carta, one of only four known to exist in the world, and the only original version on public display in the United States. The Magna Carta anchors the permanent exhibit, Records of Rights, which presents hundreds of other landmark documents, as well as photographs, videos, and interactive items, that help visitors trace the evolution of rights in the U.S. from its founding to the present day.
Beyond famous documents are the Public Vaults, an area that introduces visitors to the heart of the Archives: its 10 billion records, covering 2 centuries worth of documents, from patent searches to genealogical records to copies of George Washington’s handwritten inaugural address, to census records, governmental records, and more.
Using the very latest in interactive museum design—listening booths, computer terminals, videos, you name it—the curators have mined the material for drama (and often presented it in a very kid-friendly fashion). In an area on patents, for example, the process is turned into a game: You read the patent application and then try to guess what well-known gadget it was for. A section on immigration presents the search for genealogical data as a cliffhanger mystery, detailing the steps and missteps of past Archives’ users. President Nixon makes several eerie appearances: You read his resignation letter and listen to disturbing excerpts from the Watergate tapes. The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery rotates exhibitions of Archives documents. On view starting April 12, 2019, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment through historical records, photos, letters, and other documents to reveal what it really took to win the vote for one-half of the populace.
During the day, the William C. McGowan Theater continually runs dramatic films illustrating the relationship between records and democracy in the lives of real people. At night it serves as a premier documentary film venue for the city.
Beyond its exhibits, the Archives are a vital resource for researchers. Anyone 16 and over is welcome to use the National Archives center for genealogical research. Call for details.
The National Archives building itself is worth an admiring glance. The neoclassical structure, designed by John Russell Pope (also architect of the National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial) in the 1930s, is an impressive example of the Beaux Arts style. Seventy-two columns create a Corinthian colonnade on each of the four facades. Great bronze doors mark the Constitution Avenue entrance, and four large sculptures representing the Future, the Past, Heritage, and Guardianship sit on pedestals near the entrances. Huge pediments crown both the Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue entrances to the building. 
In peak season, you may want to reserve a spot on a guided tour (Mon–Fri 9:45am) or simply a timed-visit entry, to avoid a long wait in line. Admission is always free, but you’ll pay a $1.50 convenience fee when you place your order online at www.recreation.gov. Enter “National Archives DC.”