About the National Archives

The Public Vaults Unlocked -- Discovering American History in the National Archives, by Allen Weinstein



Discovering American History in the National Archives

by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States

The “vaults” of the National Archives and Records Administration have been “unlocked.”  Vast resources held by the National Archives in Washington, DC, and elsewhere can now be explored in a permanent exhibition, the Public Vaults, installed in the National Archives Building in Washington.

Like the redesign of the Rotunda’s treasured trio of America’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, —the Public Vaults is part of the multi-component National Archives Experience.

And what an experience!  Moving from the records of ordinary American families to films of modern Presidents as youngsters, from the papers documenting the evolution of American Government from its origins to those of post–Civil War African Americans assisted by the Freedmen’s Bureau, visitors discover the nation’s history anew. The mosaic of documentary set pieces and exciting interactive modules that make up the Public Vaults dramatically deepens the visitor’s experience of the National Archives and the role it plays in American life.

Creative achievements such as the Public Vaults require the skills and collaboration of enormously talented individuals.  A number of those responsible are acknowledged elsewhere in this book, but several deserve special mention here. The National Archives’ Director of Museum Programs, Marvin Pinkert, provided leadership for the entire National Archives Experience project. He has been ably assisted by Christina Rudy Smith, Head of Exhibits for Museum Programs.  The Executive Director of the Foundation for the National Archives, Thora Colot, and her staff offered the support and spearheaded the commitment needed to develop the Public Vaults program.  Finally, without the efforts of my predecessor, the Eighth Archivist of the United States, John Carlin, and NARA’s other senior officials, the Public Vaults program could not have been initiated much less completed.

All those involved in the project deserve the gratitude of visitors who now pass through the building daily, delighting in and learning from the unlocking of the Archives’ documentary cornucopia.  In short order, the National Archives has replaced the “behind the scenes” vaults previously unavailable to most Americans with our amazing Public Vaults.