Archives Opens Public Vaults

Exhibit Highlights Congress

Posted November 12, 2004 at 3:12pm

To the general public, the National Archives has always been one of the drier landmarks. Yes, there are original copies of treasures such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the billions of other documents stored in the Archives are kept hidden from the public, available to only VIPs and researchers.

No longer shall the public be denied such resources. On Friday, the Archives opened its new permanent exhibit, “Public Vaults.”

Features of the exhibit include an interactive station in which visitors can investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an area where people can read what others have written to public officials over the years, and an examination of patents, most of which are stored at the Archives after being filed with the Patent and Trademark Office.

Those interested in the history of Congress will also find a number of exhibits to hold their attention. Of particular interest will certainly be the interactive section of the exhibit in which visitors will be able to listen to debates from the House and Senate floor and then vote on the outcome.

Three Senate debates and three House debates have been recorded by actors and saved to a touch-screen computer. Listening to the reenactments adds a certain sense of reality to the debate that simple reading fails to provide.

One of the highlights of this exhibit is the 1832 Senate debate over the Nullification Crisis. Listeners are treated to an excellent reenactment of Sen. John C. Calhoun’s (S.C.) silver-tongued argument in favor of a state’s right to veto federal laws.

Congress-related exhibits are bountiful in this new wing of the Archives. One of the first things visitors see when they enter is a copy of the first law passed by Congress — a bill requiring all public officials to swear an oath to the Constitution. The law has been on the books since June 1, 1789, and no federal official has been able to begin his duties without first swearing fealty to the United States and the documents that govern it.

Items of a more personal nature are also on display.

One area features photos and home videos of inhabitants of the White House taken during their formative years, including a picture of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) at the tender age of 2.

The Petition for Naturalization of Hyotaro Inouye, the father of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), is another feature of the exhibit. It is located in the “Becoming an American” section. Another feature in that section is an interactive computer game in which visitors must try to guess a person’s identity based on their naturalization application.

For a glimpse of Congress in its darker moments, the records from the House Un-American Activities Committee are available for review. Both the Alger Hiss hearings and the report on Ronald Reagan can be viewed in the exhibit.

In all, it is believed that more than a million people will visit the new attraction at the National Archives. Archivist John Carlin believes that “these records not only trace our past, they point to our future.”

The Public Vaults exhibition is the latest in a series of additions to the Archives. In December, the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery will open and feature exhibitions related to newsworthy and timely topics. A new learning center will open in 2005 and offer materials for middle and high school students and their teachers. And in 2006, a Web site will be launched to give people access to the interactive features within the exhibit.