Exhibits Nearly Set at Visitor Center

Posted May 4, 2004 at 6:51pm

Although the Capitol Visitor Center won’t open for another two years, the final designs for the center’s exhibition gallery — the massive project’s showcase — are approaching completion.

A team of historians, archivists and curators, some of whom have been at work for more than three years, are ready to put the writing on the wall — literally. These teams are in the midst of revising language, finalizing selections of artifacts and preparing short films that explain how the institution works.

Texts that encapsulate six “national aspirations” — freedom, unity, knowledge, common defense, general welfare and exploration — have been drafted, rewritten and revised again. Excerpts from the Constitution that represent Congress’ authority over each of the six areas are ready to be etched in two gently curving stone walls in the center of the exhibit. A list of the documents that will be displayed, including many originals, is being finalized.

The 16,500-square-foot exhibition gallery — not quite a museum but more than simply a history of the institution — will mark the first time Congress touts its own significance to the nation. It aims to offer visitors a context from which they can understand the building they are about to tour.

Leadership staffers looked over a “final” design that was presented in December to the Capitol Preservation Commission, a bipartisan, bicameral body that oversees the CVC. Since then, architect Ralph Appelbaum, whose firm designed the space, has described the plans personally to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

“Although this says ‘final’ design, it really isn’t,” said Martha Sewell, exhibition project director for the Architect of the Capitol. “It has a lot of placeholders. We’re in the process of rewriting now and getting some outside review.” Sewell added that the review process will be especially intense for the texts of the six panels. Those texts are slated to be presented to the CPC in July.

The prominence of these texts mean that “they take on a great deal of meaning,” Sewell said. “We want to make sure the draft that we give them is something we feel comfortable with.”

In the final draft design prepared for the CPC in February, illustrations of each panel featured versions of actual text, albeit in very small print. These texts were added for the purpose of visual verisimilitude, but Sewell said she was grateful the finer points of the language didn’t elicit comments from Members or staff, because the wording has been significantly revised since then.

“As we get further down the pike, we’re prepared for Member review and Member comment — we know that will happen,” Sewell said. She added that the leadership has been encouraging. “So far, so good,” she said.

“I think what they have been shown thus far has given them confidence that we are on the right path,” CVC spokesman Tom Fontana added.

Part of the exhibition space’s $18 million budget will pay for the creation of a 12-minute video that will loop continuously in two orientation theaters. Donna Lawrence Productions in Louisville, Ky., which also made the orientation film for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, will direct those films, as well as shorter segments that will be shown in the center’s “virtual” House and Senate chambers.

The production team is “in the information-gathering phase of the project,” Sewell said. Filming is scheduled to begin next year.

Whereas the main section of the exhibit will focus on the history of the institution, the films about each chamber — which will run continuously even if the chambers are not in session — will offer visitors a chance to grapple with the process of lawmaking.

“We hope people will get a real feeling for the complexity of this place,” Sewell said.