Congress Tells Own Story

Exhibition Is First Broad Effort to Explain Institution

Posted November 4, 2003 at 6:53pm

For the more than a dozen curators, historians, archivists and designers planning the exhibition space in the Capitol Visitor Center, the process of crafting the first exhibit to tell the story of the Capitol of the free world could have been a harrowing one.

That’s especially impressive considering there are 535 would-be contributors who have vastly different ideas about how that story should be told.

But almost three years into the project and a month before the content working group presents design elements to the Capitol Preservation Committee, the team has managed to do its work insulated from political pressures and free from infighting — at least thus far. Participants rate that as a considerable accomplishment given the group’s goal: extracting the most basic elements of representative democracy and delineating Congress’ role in shaping them.

“I expected to be able to say it’s a most frustrating experience,” said Senate Historian Richard Baker, a member of the content working group. “It’s most enjoyable.

“It has been one of the best collaborative processes in my years as a historian. It’s basically Congress trying to tell the rest of the world why Congress is significant. We’ve never had this happen before,” Baker said, adding that the furthest the institution has ever gone in such an effort was putting together a brochure on the building in the 1980s.

Making the leap from a brochure as well as the historical displays currently in the Crypt to 16,500 square feet of exhibition space in the CVC (more than double that of the Rotunda) is a formidable task, both in terms of the number of documents and artifacts to be procured and the quantity of text needed to accompany them.

Many, if not most, of the items will come from the vast troves of Congressional material at the National Archives (which stores the materials for each chamber, but the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate, respectively, are the custodians). Other documents and artifacts that are not official House and Senate records will come from the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Still others will be purchased from private collectors.

Although the procurement effort is considerable, the concurrent process of designing the exhibits and writing the text is perhaps even more of a balancing act: engaging all visitors without succumbing to platitudes, depicting the nation’s whole history without resorting to political correctness, and explaining Congress’ significance without merely chronicling the history of the institution.

The exercise is more than academic. It’s what the Exhibit Project Director Marty Sewell calls an “iterative process” with many layers of review and questions that range from the highly philosophical — such as what word or words should greet visitors entering the exhibit — to the completely logistical: Can and should the three-dimensional Dome be touchable?

The answer to the first question is largely decided: E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) will grace the exhibit’s entrance. But whether the 3-D Dome will be a tactile display is still an open question.

The 14-member team of curators, historians and designers representing the House and Senate, Library of Congress, Architect of the Capitol, National Archives, Smithsonian, Capitol Guide Service and architectural firm Ralph Appelbaum & Associates, met a number of times as a whole before breaking up into subgroups last year.

In assembling the anchor of the exhibit — a chronological history of the nation, Congress and the Capitol — from scratch, even the most fundamental decisions weren’t always obvious. The group agreed early on to break it up into six time periods.

“First of all,” Baker said, “you have to agree on the periods. How do you divide it up? How do you show change over time? That was a lot more challenging that you might think.”

For instance, the first period, beginning in 1787, has more than one logical end. Should it end with the War of 1812, the burning of the Capitol in 1814 or profound changes in the institution of Congress in 1816 (when the Senate set up permanent committees, among other things)?

The challenge, Baker said, is to “stand back and look down from the top of the mountain, taking a look at the forest and not get too focused on the trees. It’s that kind of interpretation that Ralph Appelbaum & Associates has brought to the table by working very closely with the project director from the very beginning.”

A Senate team is writing a history of its chamber, while a House team is crafting its own. Joint items, such as the sections delineating what was going on in the nation as a whole during a particular period, originate on one side of the Capitol and then are revised by the other.

“We’ve really held them to word counts and the number of stories they can tell,” Sewell said.

Along the way, Sewell and an exhibit planner from RAA tweak the text. Then it goes to a professional writer, a process Baker described as basically putting the stories in a container and shaking them up.

Thus far, he said, “Nothing seemed to get lost in the translation. Clarity was the byproduct”; 150 words would get whittled down to 118 or 120.

“We keep hearing over and over again, ‘Don’t put a book on a wall,’” Baker said, but he added, “You don’t want to simplify it too much, or you are going to distort the meaning.”

Early next month, the working group will present the treatment and materials of the main elements to the CPC, the governing board for the entire visitor center project. Thus far, the bicameral, bipartisan leadership (which largely makes up the CPC) has approved the overall exhibit design. The text and items to be displayed will be presented to the commission for finalization sometime early next year.

Member involvement to this point has been relatively limited. Although a member of the working group indicated that at least one Member has approached the exhibit team to offer the services of an acquaintance, for the most part direct input from lawmakers has come only in CPC meetings, and most of the regular participants are staff.

Sewell said her group has made “periodic presentations to the CPC,” including two formal presentations to Members as well as individual presentations by Ralph Appelbaum to the four leaders of both chambers, although only two are still in those posts.

Of course, the philosophical debates among the content working group about how to present Congress as an institution could easily become fodder for an ideological debate among Members. “They have all read their history books,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana said.

But thus far, members of the working group have found bipartisan support for the exhibit’s goals. Much, however, is still to be finalized.

“That’s upcoming and, yes, that’s going to be very interesting,” Sewell said.