Archivist's remarks at opening reception for "Amending America" exhibit
Lawrence O'Brien Gallery
National Archives Building
Monday, March 14, 2016, at 7 p.m.
I'm very pleased to welcome you all to the National Archives for our new exhibit, "Amending America," which explores how our Constitution has been amended—or not—over the course of our nation's history.
This new exhibit has been years in the making, and it took the concerted efforts of National Archives staff across the country. Thank you, Christine Blackerby and Jennifer Johnson—the co-curators of "Amending America"; Ray Ruskin and Amanda Perez—the exhibit designers; Darlene McClurkin—the A/V coordinator; and the exhibit fabricator, Kearney & Associates. Many, many more National Archives staff members played essential roles: archivists and technicians, education and public programs specialists, curators, and conservators. The collaboration among so many staff truly demonstrated the "national" nature of the National Archives.
When I first heard of this exhibit, I was astonished to learn that there have been more than 11,000 amendments proposed to the Constitution. Some narrowly missed ratification; others never had a realistic chance. If the Founders had not set the bar for ratification so high, we might have had an amendment barring public office to anyone who engaged in a duel. Or we might be choosing the President of the United States by picking a ball out of a bowl.
Whether a long-shot or a sure thing, all the amendments demonstrate our government in action, as laid down by the U.S. Constitution. The National Archives has an official role in the amendment process. If a proposed amendment passes both houses of Congress, the Archives—with the assistance of the Office of the Federal Register—sends the joint resolution to all the state legislatures. When three-fourths of the states have ratified, The Archivist certifies that the amendment is valid and has become part of the Constitution.
"Amending America" begins with the first 10 amendments to the Constitution—the Bill of Rights, which was ratified on December 15, 1791. We graphically show that with a ribbon of words flowing from the permanent display of the original Bill of Rights—just behind me—to the "Amending America" exhibit entrance at the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery.
For the 225 years since its ratification, Americans have exercised and cherished the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Starting with this exhibit, the National Archives is marking the Bill of Right's 225th anniversary with activities across the nation, including a traveling exhibit, educational outreach, and public programs. One of these programs is a series of National Conversations on Rights and Justice. These events, taking place around the country, will explore the continuing and often complicated issues of rights in the modern era.
Another way "Amending America" will have an effect beyond these walls came out of the work to produce the banner you see stretching across the Rotunda. This 225-foot-long banner is imprinted with the titles of all 11,000 proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution. National Archives staff and volunteers transcribed the words of every one of those 11,000, and the fruits of that labor will last longer than the run of this exhibit. All of that text has been uploaded into Data.gov for free, searchable, sortable access for the very first time—making a major contribution to online access of the records of our Federal Government.
Before we go any further, I want to thank AT&T and the Lawrence F. O'Brien Family for their leadership support of the exhibit.
I also want to express gratitude to the National Archives Foundation for supporting this exhibit and our many other public outreach projects.
The Foundation has long supported us in our mission to serve the public and increase awareness of our remarkable holdings. We are truly grateful for the support and enthusiasm of the Foundation's board members and its dedicated staff, which allows us to educate, entertain, and enlighten through our exhibits and public programs.
Please welcome the Chair of the Board of the National Archives Foundation, A'Lelia Bundles.