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US National Archives Exhibit Brings America's History to Life - 2003-09-28

Some of the most important documents of American history are back on display in the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., in an exhibit called A New World At Hand. The exhibit showcases the so-called Charters of Freedom, including the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It also shows off some dramatic changes to the building's Rotunda, just reopened this month after a two-year renovation. The changes bring the nation's most treasured archives into new light, and promise to enhance what has always been an inspirational experience for museum visitors.

Around the curved walls of the newly re-opened Archives Rotunda are two huge murals: The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. They were painted 65 years ago by artist Barry Faulkner and restored to that pristine condition as part of the renovation of the National Archives. They tower over the original documents they celebrate - no less than the legal and philosophical building blocks of the United States.

"First of all, the founders created a nation founded on a set of ideas and ideals that people, in spite of other human flaws, could govern themselves," said National Archives senior curator Stacey Bredhoff. "They believed that if their experiment was successful it would change the world, not just for themselves, but for all mankind all over the world."

Ms. Bredhoff points to one document that reveals the risk the founding fathers took as they plotted a revolution. "One of the documents that I'd like to highlight is an oath of secrecy that delegates to the Continental Congress took in 1775. It was on this very slow, gradual road to independence, which was a very dangerous thing to contemplate," she said. "Discussing independence was tantamount to treason, which was punishable by death. So the delegates signed this oath of secrecy. And on the page in this case you'll be able to see the signature of John Hancock, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others of the great founding figures."

The historic documents in A New World At Hand also include George Washington's draft of the Constitution; the sales contract for the Louisiana Purchase; the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the southern states during the Civil War; and the deed for the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France to the people of United States.

Seeing these famous documents up close for the first time had a powerful impact on students who toured the new exhibit. "The documents are very important because [they] shape our lives, they help us understand our own history and live out how they think we should live," said one student. Another one said, "I definitely think it's important to keep our history and our documents alive and have people be able to read them, because a lot of them played a major role in the shaping of America."

The Charters of Freedom have been the focus of a major restoration effort over the past two years. The Archives' director of preservation, Doris Hamburg, said it was a painstaking process. "Each document was looked at, its condition was assessed and the conservation treatment was undertaken. After that, they were put into these encasements," she said. "They have no oxygen in them. They have argon, and that will also be an important part in minimizing deterioration over time."

Improvements to the National Archives building will be continuing, with the Rotunda just the first of several areas to be renovated. Next year, the Public Vaults will be open. According to Tom Wheeler, President of the Foundation for The National Archives, this new interactive exhibit will help more people understand the National Archives' complex mission.

"The public vaults open a window on all the other documents at the National Archives, and really allow people to go beyond the walls of the Rotunda to explore for themselves how the American Archives works," he explained. "We're going to have an audio tour segment that allows us to be multilingual in our approach to the Charters of Freedom, and that of course is a major breakthrough."

Mr. Wheeler points out that interactive computer devices will allow visitors to see the documents in a way they never could before. "A document like the Zimmermann telegram, which is a coded document that was a communication between Germany and Mexico that led to American involvement in World War I," he explained. "If we simply put this document in display, all you'll see is code; but with the electronic document reader, you can read through the code and see the message that was being sent and why it was so important in evolution of that history."

The documents are now displayed in new cases, positioned so that young children and people on wheelchairs can see them easily. Archivist of the United States John Carlin says the historic documents are preserved not just because they represent America's past, but because they remain the foundation for its future.