Exhibition Space to Enliven CVC

Posted November 3, 2003 at 6:48pm

Even before construction crews began excavating for the Capitol Visitor Center, a team of historians, designers and curators was already at work on the element likely to have the most profound impact on tours of the Capitol — the exhibition space in which Congress explains itself and its history for the first time.

Early next month the exhibit planner will present a final design to the Capitol Preservation Commission, which oversees the entire project.

“We are the only exhibition gallery that tells the story of Congress and the Capitol,” said Marty Sewell, exhibition project director. “The basic theme is to talk about representative democracy to give that feeling of belonging and involvement.”

It’s not just a museum or simply a history of the institution, rather the exhibition gallery will be Congress’ first assertion of its significance to the country and the world. It aims to give visitors a context from which to understand the building they are about to tour.

The exhibition will center on a large, three-dimensional replica of the Dome, showing the details of the exterior on one side and the interior architectural elements on the other — neither of which can be seen up close by most visitors gazing upward inside or outside the building.

Emanating outward on either side of the Dome will be two gradually curving walls providing the basic landscape of the space. Inscripted into the convex side will be the “wall of national aspirations” — unity, freedom, common defense, exploration, knowledge and general welfare, along with descriptions of Congress’ role in attempting to realize each.

The Architect of the Capitol hired Sewell in January 2001, and Ralph Appelbaum & Associates (who designed the Holocaust Museum and the Newseum, among other high-profile projects) was brought on even before that. Sewell and Appelbaum’s team began by setting big educational goals and articulating the gallery’s mission.

Sewell — who spent 23 years as an assistant director for traveling exhibitions at the Smithsonian — now heads a team of 14 experts representing the Library of Congress, AOC, House and Senate historical and curatorial offices, Smithsonian and National Archives, as well as designers from Appelbaum & Associates.

Sewell said the team of archivists, historians, designers and curators aims to document on the wall of national aspirations the “struggles the country has gone through to achieve those lofty goals. Our point here is Congress’ specific role in helping to achieve these.”

To that end, the wall might include constituent letters about Social Security along with the actual legislation, “trying to show the interplay between people and Congress” for the general welfare, Sewell said.

Other possibilities would be to display the then-secret letter from President Thomas Jefferson to Congress about the Lewis and Clark expedition (exploration) or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech to Congress after Pearl Harbor (common defense).

None of the details is yet final, although the CPC has approved the basic design elements. “We have a list of artifacts that we would like,” Sewell said. “The finalization of that is really dependent on the [final approval] of the CPC.”

Some of the items the curatorial teams have tentatively procured for display include: the ink stand used by Henry Clay when he was Speaker of the House; the Senate payment ledger from 1790 to 1881 (rediscovered in a storeroom during excavation for the CVC); peace medals given to American Indian chiefs from the Polk and Monroe administrations; the desk used by Thomas Hart Benton when he was in the House; the pocket watch owned by Stephen Douglas; Speaker Joseph Cannon’s trunk, which he used to store requests for committee seats; and the inkwell from the vice president’s desk in the Senate chamber, circa 1901.

Having the actual documents and original artifacts to display is paramount, Sewell said. “It’s the shrine of democracy,” she said. “This exhibition could be in Oshkosh if we didn’t have the original documents. We feel very strongly about that.”

The other side of the wall of aspirations will be divided into a total of six time periods, 1787 to 1814, 1815 to 1850, and so on. Each of those sections will have a model of the Capitol as it looked in that period, contemporary artifacts, a narrative of national events during those decades, along with more specific vignettes on how history unfolded in each chamber.

“Our curators felt very strongly that they wanted to give the public a real idea of how Congress works and the fact that they are very different bodies,” Sewell said. “It’s very easy for the public to identify with the president. It’s very hard to identify with 535 people.”

Opposite the wall of aspirations will be an interactive area with waist-high screens where visitors can go through programs explaining how a bill becomes a law, a virtual tour of the Capitol and a way to look up Members by state, district and ZIP code. The wall above the ledge housing the interactive computers will host plasma screens and back-lit transparencies, giving curators a flexible medium to display photos and clips of famous Members and rooms not open to the public.

The exhibition will also include virtual House and Senate chambers, complete with the distinct architecture of each chamber and large screens showing footage of “great moments” in each chamber’s history, flanked by a feed of live floor debate (when the body is in session).

In each theater will be so-called “reading rails,” islands delineating the role of House and Senate officers, each chamber’s bell systems, as well as an explanation of how legislation moves through Congress and the behind-the-scenes players — pages, Capitol Police, Capitol Guide Service, subway operations, legislative staffers and maintenance workers — who keep Congress running.

Planners emphasize that the virtual chambers are in no way meant to deter visitors from seeing the real thing, but rather to help them understand what they are about to see. And because no talking is allowed in the House and Senate galleries, this area will provide a forum for teachers and others to explain the intricacies of the legislative process.

A significant piece of history currently on display in the Crypt will also find its way to the exhibition space. The catafalque on which President Abraham Lincoln laid in state, currently housed in the tomb area of the Crypt that President George Washington was supposed to have occupied (the Capitol wasn’t complete at the time of his death, and his family chose to keep him buried at Mount Vernon).

The draped wooden framework, upon which dozens of honored Americans have since laid in state, will find a new home in the CVC, allowing wheelchair access to it for the first time. Text explaining the historical significance of the catafalque will provide an opportunity to demonstrate the Capitol as a national stage, the venue for state funerals as it is for inaugurations, July Fourth celebrations, State of the Union addresses, demonstrations and Gold Medal ceremonies.

Also part of the $18 million budget for the exhibition space is production of the 12-minute videos that will play continually in the two orientation theaters. The AOC is currently evaluating proposals from production companies.