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National Archives Review
The National Archives is at once monument, museum, and the nation's memory. Headquartered in a grand marble edifice on Constitution Avenue, the National Archives is charged with preserving and archiving the most historically important U.S. government records. At 44 facilities nationwide, including 13 presidential libraries, the Archives preserves more than 10 billion paper records dating back to 1775 and billions of recent electronic records.
The star attractions, which draw a million reverential viewers every year, are the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. These are housed in the Archives' cathedral-like rotunda, each on a marble platform, encased in bulletproof glass, and floating in argon, an inert gas, which protects the irreplaceable documents. Displayed nearby, is the 1297 Magna Carta, the document of English common law whose language inspired the Constitution: this is one of four remaining originals.
The Public Vaults goes deep into the stacks with more than a thousand originals or facsimiles on display at any time. The permanent exhibit showcases the breadth of the Archives' holdings. You can find anything from a George Washington letter to the first issue of Mad magazine (used as evidence in congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency).
Watch films of flying saucers, used as evidence in congressional UFO hearings, listen to the Nuremberg trials or Congress debating Prohibition—selections from the Archives' 500,000 film and audio recordings.
Many exhibits are interactive and kid-friendly. One room of letters from children to U.S. presidents includes a letter from seventh-grader Andy Smith, asking Ronald Regan for federal funds to clean up a disaster area—his room.
Reservations to visit the Archives are highly recommended: without one, you could wait up to an hour to get in. Reservations for guided tours, or for a self-guided visit, must be made at least six weeks in advance. March, April, May, and the weekends around Thanksgiving and Christmas are the busiest. Expect to spend 90 minutes here, viewing the charter documents and touring the permanent exhibit.
The archives research entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue is open to anyone. Family genealogists can find birth, death, military, and census records, immigrant ships' passenger lists, letters, and maps since the beginning of the nation's history. Archivists can help you track down ancestors' records or anything else you're looking for.
- Address: Constitution Ave., between 7th and 9th Sts. The Mall, Washington, DC 20408 | Map It
- Phone: 866/272–6272; 877/444–6777 tours and reservations
- Cost: Free
- Hours: Daily 10–5:30; tours weekdays at 9:45 AM with reservation.
- Website: www.archives.gov
- Metro Archives/Navy Memorial.
- Location: The Mall
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