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Archives Exhibit Teaches Children About US History - 2003-12-16

Some U.S. students are getting a lesson in history by viewing documents and artifacts from their country's past. The exhibition "American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives" tells the American story to a new generation of youngsters.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," commented one of the students at the Los Angeles exhibition as she gazed at an illustration from 100 years ago. She might add that historical letters, treaties and handwritten notes paint just as vivid a picture.

Diane Siegel, education specialist for the exhibition at the Los Angeles central library, says it tells the American story through historical items like the 1803 treaty that marked the U.S. purchase of the Louisiana territory from France.

"We've got some incredibly important documents here, including the Louisiana Purchase," he said. "It's the 200th anniversary of that document. We have two pages of that. We have two pages from John F. Kennedy's original notes on a yellow legal pad for his first inaugural address. We have Thomas Edison's application for a patent for the improvement of the light bulb."

Sixteen-year-old high school student Tim Coady is describing the exhibit to younger students. A history buff himself, he says the objects on display are impressive.

"They're things that have influenced our culture and how we turned out as a nation, because these are the documents that really fueled our imagination and caused people to change," he said. "There are things in there like Germany's surrender to the U-S, which just totally changed how the world worked. So it's just incredibly interesting to look at these things."

He says another document suggests what might have happened if the first men on the moon had met with disaster. A 1969 speech prepared for President Richard Nixon lamented their loss. Luckily, the moonwalkers returned and the speech was never delivered.

Another part of the exhibition contains a 19th century letter to another U.S. president from the king of Siam, modern-day Thailand. It is displayed beside an ornamental sword and a portrait of the king with one of his children. Robbie Ancona, 15, another volunteer guide, finds the letter fascinating.

"It talks about the king of Siam, who offered elephants to the United States, which was very funny because he always wondered why we didn't have elephants," he said. "And the president said, no thank you, we don't need the elephants, but he did keep that sword, which is in that case in that room over there."

President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the king that the U.S. climate was not suitable for breeding elephants.

On a recent morning, the two teenaged students and some community volunteers escorted elementary school students through the exhibition.

Teacher Tracy Newallis says the exhibit helps illustrate what her students are studying. "Part of the fifth grade curriculum is learning about the making of our nation, so this is a perfect exhibit to add to our curriculum," she said.

The original document of secession of the state of Virginia is also in the show, recounting one event that led to the U.S. civil war. The Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Lincoln freed the slaves in occupied Southern states, was on display for four days in December.

Teacher John Scognamillo says these historical objects bring history to life. Fifth-grade student Hannah Jacobs says they do for her. "They really teach us about our history and explain to us. We can't just read it out of a textbook. It really helps to see visuals," he said.

Her friend, Marasa Bubica, says that seeing original pictures, letters and documents explains history better than any book can.

Diane Siegel says the exhibit tells the American story "warts and all." It includes an 1898 letter from the Queen of Hawaii protesting U.S. annexation of the islands. It also recounts restrictive U.S. immigration laws aimed at the Chinese, displaying part of the immigration record of Sun Yat Sen, the first president of the Republic of China. He came to the United States to raise funds for his political reform movement.

Diane Siegel says the exhibit shows that history is fluid, shaped by many individual decisions, and that things could well have turned out very differently. That was her message as she escorted a group of students through the library.

The exhibit "American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives," can bee seen at the Los Angeles central library through January 4. Starting February 6, it can be seen at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut.