National Archives’ 75th Anniversary Is BIG!’ Event

Posted March 11, 2009 at 4:47pm

Basketball player Shaquille O’Neal’s size-22 foot is larger than some dinosaur tracks. Visitors can see this phenomenon for themselves at the National Archives and Records Administration’s new exhibition, “BIG! Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the National Archives.—

The exhibit, which opens Friday, is in many ways a “greatest hits— of the National Archives. Commissioned in celebration of the museum’s anniversary, it features “big records, big events and big ideas,— according to a prologue to the exhibit. “The items in the exhibit evoke the challenges, sacrifices and even humor that are woven into the American tapestry.—

“BIG— features an eclectic smattering of American history, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s military records and a replica of the bathtub that was specially built to fit William Howard Taft, America’s fattest president.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted with a 13.5-foot scroll on the right and a massive glass-enclosed map that takes up much of the floor on the left. The scroll is the original copy of the Articles of Confederation, America’s first governing document, which was presented to Congress on July 9, 1778, and later signed. The large signature of John Hancock is clearly visible, as is the name of Josiah Bartlett, who represented New Hampshire at the time. While much of the ink is faded, the Archives has summarized the document on the wall above, helping visitors to understand its significance.

The map is a survey taken of the battlefield at Gettysburg, where the North proved victorious over the course of three hot July days in 1863, widely considered the turning point of the Civil War. This portion of the exhibit is particularly moving because the museum has inscribed the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 19, 1863, as a dedication to those who gave their lives, on a wall above the map. Visitors are able to virtually stand on the battlefield and read the historic speech, making it all the more poignant.

In keeping with the theme of war, one section of the exhibit delves into the trials and tribulations of World War II. The radar plot from Opana Station in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is on display, mapping out the attack that took place there on Dec. 7, 1941. Alongside the plot is the tally sheet used in the House of Representatives when that body voted to declare war on Japan the next day. The sheet shows one dissenting vote cast by lifelong pacifist Rep. Jeanette Rankin (R-Mont.). An Associated Press photo of Rankin hiding out in a phone booth waiting for the House corridor to clear out after the vote is also on display.

Other highlights include a telegram sent by Gen. Omar Bradley to MacArthur notifying him that President Harry S. Truman had relieved him of his duties and the first printing of the Declaration of Independence.

“These are the things that have sustained us through history and will sustain us in the future,— curator Stacey Bredhoff said.

The items in the exhibit are undoubtedly random, and it is admittedly weird to see a basketball player’s shoe displayed in conjunction with the nation’s first governing document. In some ways it feels as if the curator went into the country’s attic and pulled out a few unmarked boxes. But nevertheless, America — and a tiny hint of Americana — shine through this collection.

“BIG! Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the National Archives— will be on display for the rest of the year.