Preserving History

Second Phase of Archives Renovation Begins Next Month

Posted March 4, 2003 at 3:57pm

As tourists descend upon D.C. this spring seeking a sense of national history, the document that in some sense started it all, the Declaration of Independence, is off limits to visitors.

The document is housed in the National Archives which is being renovated in two phases, the second of which is scheduled to begin next month. This phase includes the construction of four exhibit vaults that will triple the size of the public space of the building.

“It’s going to mean radical changes in what we are able to offer the public,” said Marvin Pinkert, director of museum programs.

In the past, the only space open to visitors was the Rotunda, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are located, and the circular gallery surrounding the Rotunda. The renovations in the public area of the building, previously used as stack space, will increase the public exhibit space by about 45,000 to 50,000 square feet.

The new space will be dedicated to taking visitors through the documentation of American history and providing an understanding of how documents helped shape that history, Pinkert said.

The general concept of the planned visitor space is to create an interactive exhibit that takes visitors through American history beginning with George Washington’s letters and ending with the first presidential Web site. The new visitors space is scheduled to open in fall 2004.

“This is one of the great halls of America. I like to think of these documents as the American crown jewels,” Pinkert said of the Archives, located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and Seventh Street Northwest. “The message is that records matter.”

The first of the four vaults, all of which are named with language from the Preamble of the Constitution, is “We the People.” This exhibit is intended to help visitors understand the citizenship process and includes an interactive guessing game of sorts where citizenship records of famous people have important information covered up while the player guesses whose it is. More information becomes visible as the visitor needs help. Pinkert says that one of the goals of “We the People” is to provide some sort of documentation that applies to every person who visits it. A family history search is another interactive part of the exhibit in which visitors will have the opportunity to assist a fictional character in his genealogical search.

“It’s not possible to find your own ancestors in 60 seconds, but we will take people through the steps and hopefully it will pique their interest,” Pinkert said.

The second vault, “Form a More Perfect Union,” will take visitors through the three branches of the government and how citizens hold government accountable through records. One of the activities will give visitors the opportunity to listen to audio segments of recorded presidential phone conversations. Another of the interactive areas will be devoted to letting visitors listen to debates from the House and Senate floors and then voting as they see fit.

“We believe, based on market research, that this is something people would like to do and that they will also be learning,” Pinkert said.

In the third vault, “Provide for Common Defense,” visitors will have the opportunity to view recruitment advertisements and videos and hear day-after reports from the front lines. Visitors will also have the opportunity to see how individuals play a part in making history by mock-editing documentary films.

“Everyone who makes history relies on public records and makes choices,” Pinkert said.

In the final vault, “Promote General Welfare,” the public will be able to see all of the government records from a day that is generally remembered by everyone who lived through it. For instance, all government communication from July 20, 1969, the day man landed on the moon, will be featured. Individuals will have the opportunity to see that at the same time, overseas troops were under attack in Vietnam. Also, the location of every president alive during the event is recorded.

“Lots of things were happening simultaneously,” said Pinkert. “We want people to realize the complexity.”

The fourth section will also include a series of American firsts, patent puzzles tailored for children, and photos taken by land surveyors in the 1870s and photos of the same area taken recently to show development.

“The challenge is that — for so many documents — visitors don’t have sufficient context to know what to look for, so we have to make it jump out,” said Pinkert. “We can take them through the process and make them understand.”

The other phase of the renovations includes making the Rotunda compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and making it possible to display all four pages of the Constitution, instead of the the two it previously displayed. The documents will also be encased differently to prevent decomposition by the elements. The Rotunda is scheduled to reopen this September.

The construction process will begin as soon as design plans are finalized and reconciled with the budget, perhaps next month. Congressional allocations of $108 million provided the funds for the rehabilitation of the building and the re-encasement of the Charters of Freedom, as well as new stairways and elevators to make the building ADA-compliant, but private dollars raised by the Foundation of the National Archives in the amount of $22.5 million will provide funding for all of the new exhibit space.