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January 2004 Feature

A "Top Secret" Preview of the National Archives Experience

Have you ever wanted to page through documents that were once secret? Would you like to explore stories of espionage missions, coded messages, wonder weapons, and war plans that were once limited to only a few officials with security clearances?

If so, then you won't want to miss "Top Secret," a computer interactive inside the new Public Vaults of the National Archives, a part of the National Archives Experience that will open in the fall of 2004. Using a novel technological innovation,"The Archives Explorer," visitors to the National Archives will be able to explore formerly restricted documents, translate codes, highlight interesting stories, view documents in context, and see them come to life. The Explorer, which has been likened to "a plasma screen on handle bars," is a monitor that will move across specially sensitized archival boxes. As the monitor passes under a box, the box will "open," and its contents will be revealed.

sketch of exhibit elevation

By the end of the year, visitors to the National Archives will be able to experience a new interactive exhibit, "Top Secret," in which they will use a movable screen called "The Archives Explorer" to examine documents in depth.

For example, a visitor might pause over a box labeled "The Zimmerman Telegram: A Code That Meant War" and decode the famous message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the Mexican government in 1917. The telegram offered to help Mexico gain back parts of the American Southwest as a reward for supporting Germany in a war against the United States.

Opening another set of boxes will let visitors read highlights from a 1946 American cold war plan for war with the Soviet Union, or learn about a secret World War II program to undermine German morale by dropping anti-Nazi propaganda in the form of fake letters during air strikes on railroad stations.

sketch of Project Cornflakes

A series of screens will explain how during World War II the Office of Strategic Services tried to undermine German morale by dropping anti-Nazi propaganda in the form of fake letters. The OSS called this project "Cornflakes."

In addition to the physical exhibit that will open in Washington, DC, a virtual version of "Top Secret" is now in the planning stage as part of the National Archives Experience on the web. The web version will allow students from around the world to use NARA documents in their studies and will transform an exhibit into a place where communities of learners can share their perspectives.

Bruce Bustard
Curator, Museum Programs


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