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September 2004: McGowan Theater Premieres

Theater illustration
An artist’s rendering of the new William G. McGowan Theater (Hartman-Cox Associates)

It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. A treasure is waiting to be discovered deep beneath the steps of the National Archives. This month the doors will open, and all will be revealed. But you don’t have to be Indiana Jones to experience this adventure. Starting in September, any visitor to the National Archives can enjoy the new William G. McGowan Theater.

This state-of-the-art facility was made possible through the generosity of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, a foundation established to give financial assistance to organizations and causes that reflect the vision, concerns, and lifetime experiences of telecommunications pioneer William G. McGowan. Designed by noted architect Warren Cox, the theater is both beautiful and functional, paying tribute in its character to the work of John Russell Pope, who designed the National Archives Building. The theater’s 290 seats significantly expand our program capacity and offer improved accessibility for all visitors. The stage boasts a one-of-a-kind moving screen that can be adjusted to provide a peak viewing experience for either films or lecture programs. The control room is equipped to handle almost any type of media, from archival silent footage to live TV broadcasts.

The River poster
A poster for the film The River, to be shown September 11 in the McGowan Theater. (Records of the Farmers Home Administration)

A New Beginning
The public debut of the McGowan Theater will be in its role as the new starting point for a visit to the National Archives Experience. Beginning the morning of September 10, visitors will be invited to see a short film on the Charters of Freedom, produced by WGBH/NOVA. The film explains the significance of the Charters and explores the role of the National Archives in preserving the nation’s records. A second signature film offering, in partnership with the Discovery Channel, will make its premiere in early 2005.

Our Legacy in Film
In addition to its regular daytime use, the McGowan Theater will become a showplace for documentary film. The core of its programming will come from the more than 360,000 reels and tapes of film and video in NARA’s audiovisual holdings. On September 11 the film program opens with a full day of films drawn from the collection. These films reflect on the challenges our nation faced in the 20th century, including economic depression, war, political crises, and racial discrimination.

The program that evening, this year’s Academy Award–winning documentary, The Fog of War, is the first of a new series of films the National Archives will present that feature independent documentaries closely related to NARA’s records. In October we will launch a new partnership with the Foundation for the National Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, bringing many of the Academy’s programs to the Washington, DC, region for the first time. The first offering will be a salute to director George Stevens the weekend of October 22. Plans are also under way for a new center for documentary film, to be based in the McGowan Theater.

David McCullough
The McGowan Theater will host prominent scholars such as David McCullough. (Photo by Earl McDonald)

On the Record
For many years the National Archives has hosted outstanding scholars, writers, and commentators whose work has been influenced by research in the Federal records. David McCullough, who will receive the Foundation’s “Records of Achievement” award at the annual gala on September 9, leads a list of recent well-known speakers that includes Michael Beschloss, H.W. Brands, Walter Isaacson, and Michael Barone. The new McGowan Theater offers the opportunity for many more people to hear and participate in these free, lively lecture programs.

Our opening weekend features programs centered on recent books about the Founders and on the role that women have played in the transmission of our political heritage. Other forums in September will explore the records of Congress and the judiciary. Diversity of content will be the hallmark of our new programs. In October and November we will introduce new family programs, making the McGowan Theater a gathering place for the whole community.

The stage lights are up, the red carpet has been laid down, and we’re all ready for the adventures to begin. Come join us.

Marvin Pinkert
Director of Museum Programs National Archives and Records Administration

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