Monument, museum, and the nation's memory, the Archives, headquartered in a grand marble edifice on Constitution Avenue, preserves more than 10 billion paper records dating back to 1774 and billions of recent electronic records. The National Archives and Records Administration is charged with preserving and archiving the most historically important U.S. government records at its records centers nationwide and in presidential libraries.
Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—are the star attractions, drawing a million reverential viewers every year. They are housed in the Archives' cathedral-like rotunda, each on a marble platform, encased in bulletproof glass, and floating in argon, an inert gas that protects the irreplaceable documents.
On display at the entrance to the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery is the 1297 Magna Carta, the document of English common law whose language inspired the Constitution. One of four remaining originals, the Magna Carta sets the stage for the "Records of Rights" exhibit in this interactive gallery that traces the civil rights struggles of African Americans, women and immigrants. A 17' computer touch-screen interactive table in the center of the gallery enables visitors to access 300 documents on rights issues from the Archives' collection. Surrounding this centerpiece table are the themed display areas—"Bending Towards Justice," "Remembering the Ladies," and "Yearning to Breathe Free"—with thought-provoking photographs, historical documents and videos. Highlights include a YMCA English guide for new citizens from the 1920s with the first lesson titled "Aliens"; the original discharge papers of a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War to gain his freedom; the legislative mark-up copy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and letters to the President from children who questioned the morality of segregation.
The Public Vaults goes deep into the stacks with more than a thousand originals or facsimiles from the Archives' holdings on display at any time. 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. 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, should be made at least six weeks in advance. March, April, May, and the weekends around Thanksgiving and Christmas are the busiest. Expect to spend two hours here, viewing the Charters of Freedom and touring the Records of Rights Gallery and Public Vaults.
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.
"Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures" is on display through Januuary 5, 2015 and highlights 100 letters, applications and other documents with notable signatures of presidents, actors, world leaders, and entertainers.
Constitution Ave., between 7th and 9th Sts., Washington, District of Columbia, 20408, USA
866-272–6272; 877-444–6777-tours and reservations