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 of these fundamental documents on the nation and the world.
But the wonders don’t end there: On display in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery, which opened in December 2013, is the original 1297 Magna Carta, now the centerpiece of a new permanent exhibit, Records of Rights. The document is one of only a few known to exist, and the only original version residing permanently in the United States. In this exhibit, hundreds of other documents, as well as photographs, videos, and interactive displays, help visitors trace the evolution of rights in the U.S. from its founding to the present day.
Those documents are the most famous in the Archives, but they’re just the beginning of the fun here. Don’t skip the Public Vaults, an area that introduces visitors to the heart of the archives: its 9 billion records, covering 2 centuries worth of documents, from patent searches to genealogical records to census records, passport applications, governmental records, and more.
I know, I know: It sounds dry, but the way the curators have laid it all out is anything but. 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 several Archives’ users. President Nixon makes several eerie appearances: You read his resignation letter and listen to disturbing excerpts from the Watergate tapes. 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, and at night it serves as a premier documentary film venue for the city. The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery rotates exhibitions of Archives documents.
Beyond its exhibits, the Archives are a vital resource for those doing research. 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 the 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 help 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.
- Elise Hartman Ford