National Archives' Opens Major Permanent Exhibition On November 12, 2004
Press Release · Thursday, October 14, 2004

Press Release
October 14, 2004

National Archives' Opens Major Permanent Exhibition On November 12, 2004

"Public Vaults" Gives Visitors the Sensation of Going Behind-the-Scenes at the National Archives

  • Press preview: Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, 9am to 11am
  • Veterans Day Sneak Preview for military personnel, veterans, and their families: Thursday, November 11th, 10am to 5:30 pm

Washington, DC, October 14, 2004…On Friday, November 12, the National Archives will launch the major permanent exhibition entitled the "Public Vaults" with an opening celebration featuring a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the participation of historical re-enactors. The new exhibition will give visitors the sensation of going behind-the-scenes to explore among the billions of unique documents, photographs, maps, films, recordings, and objects in the Archives’ holdings. The "Public Vaults" exhibition is a key component of the National Archives Experience, a multi-year initiative that will more than triple the size of the exhibition spaces and public educational and programming facilities at the National Archives Building on Washington DC’s National Mall. The National Archives Experience is being made possible by a public-private partnership between the National Archives and the Foundation for the National Archives; all National Archives Experience programs are free and open to the public.

Nearly a million people come to the National Archives every year to see the founding documents of American democracy – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Few realize that behind the wall where the Charters of Freedom are displayed are billions of records that trace the story of our nation and the American people. The "Public Vaults" exhibition will give visitors the sensation of walking past that wall and into the Archives' behind-the-scenes vaults and stacks. Visitors will be able to listen in on the deliberations of Presidents as they faced some of the country’s greatest challenges, explore newly declassified top secret documents, step into the boots of ordinary soldiers on the front lines, follow the original investigation into the sinking of the Titanic, read a teenager’s plea to keep Elvis out of the army, and experience many other of the extraordinary events of our history.

"The National Archives preserves and shares with the public the documents of our nation, from the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation to records that mark the lives of average Americans, from early homesteaders and civil war soldiers, to our nation’s newest citizens," said Archivist John W. Carlin. "The National Archives Experience will significantly increase our ability to share with everyone the drama, struggle, and exhilaration that are reflected in these records. These records not only trace our past, they point to our future. They directly touch the lives of millions of people and reveal the evolving story of what it means to be American."

"PUBLIC VAULTS" EXHIBITION The "Public Vaults" exhibition will combine real documents from the Archives, interactive exhibits and immersive displays to explore not only well-known people and historic turning points, but also little-known events that provide surprising perspectives and insights. Following are some of the highlights of the "Public Vaults" exhibition:

  • Investigations features a new interactive computer touch-screen system, the "Archives Explorer." The exhibit includes a wall of document storage boxes that look like those in the Archives’ stacks. When visitors shift a special plasma screen over a sensitized box, the records inside ‘flow’ onto the screen. Using the Archives Explorer, visitors can follow the path of some of the most compelling federal investigations in American history, including those of the Titanic and Challenger disasters, Watergate, the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, 1950s juvenile delinquency, and inquiries into reports of UFOs.

  • Conflicts and Crisis draws upon the National Archives collection of Oval Office audio recordings to take visitors into the White House and inside the Presidential conversations that shaped world history. In the exhibit, visitors will be able to listen in on the deliberations of John F. Kennedy as he faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Lyndon Johnson as he struggled with events of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

  • Dear Uncle Sam offers a sampler of letters that citizens wrote to the government. Teenagers’ pleas to keep Elvis out of the army, messages written by angry construction workers on 2 X 4s and sent to President Carter, and a letter from a young boy asking the President to declare his room a "disaster area" reveal a personal window onto the ongoing dialogue between the government and the people.

  • Top Secret features the computer interactive system, the "Archives Explorer," which visitors can use to delve into stories of espionage missions, read coded messages, see plans for wonder weapons, and follow war strategies that were once limited to only a handful of officials with security clearances. One of the operations included in "Top Secret" is Project Cornflakes, in which the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) tried to undermine German morale by dropping anti-Nazi propaganda—in the form of fake letters—in counterfeit mailbags during air attacks on railroad stations.

  • 20 July, 1969, is the date Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first step onto the moon, and this exhibit enables visitors to explore both the lunar and earth-bound moments of that day. A mock-up of NASA's mission control room immerses visitors in the tension and excitement of the 'giant leap for mankind.' The log book for the aircraft carrier USS Hornet chronicles the preparations to recover the Apollo 11 astronauts and their spacecraft after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. President Nixon’s Daily Diary notes that he "held an interplanetary conversation with Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the Moon." A report from South Vietnam by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in its Daily Staff Journal describes spotting North Vietnamese soldiers destroying enemy bunkers and then stops to take note of the momentous events taking place on the moon.

The exhibition is designed by Gallagher and Associates, whose most recent Washington, DC project is the International Spy Museum. The exhibition’s innovative interactive computer exhibits were created by Second Story Interactive.

The "Public Vaults" exhibition is part of The National Archives Experience, an educational initiative to create experiences that celebrate the American spirit and reveal how our nation's past is a living part of our nation’s future. Visitors, in person and online, can discover and explore documents from the famous to the unexpected, and as diverse as Edison’s patent application for the light bulb, photographs and records from Ellis Island, newsreels dating back to the early 1900s, evidence and judgments from civil rights cases, the real records of the soldiers who inspired the movie Glory, the first-person account of a Minuteman at Lexington, Louis Armstrong’s draft card, and Albert Einstein’s naturalization record.

Components of the National Archives Experience Now Open to the Public

  • The first stage of the National Archives Experience included the renovation of the National Archives’ Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom and conservation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The renovated Rotunda and the Charters of Freedom opened to the public on September 18, 2003.

  • The William G. McGowan Theater, which opened on September 10, 2004, will be the region's leading center for documentary film and an important forum for public programs with the nation’s leading authors, researchers, and filmmakers. Free daily screenings in the McGowan Theater serve as an introduction to the National Archives Experience. The current film offering, Preserving the Charters of Freedom – developed by Middlemarch Films for NOVA/WGBH and PBS – tells the story of the delicate and complex conservation of the Charters of Freedom and their re-installation in new state-of-the-art cases. In spring, the National Archives will premiere a dramatic film illustrating the vital role that records play in the lives and experiences of real people.

Components of the National Archives Experience Opening to the Public in 2004 and 2005

In addition to the "Public Vaults" exhibition opening November 12, 2004, future components of the National Archives Experience include the following:

  • The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, to be formally dedicated on December 6, 2004, will feature exhibitions that draw on the holdings of the National Archives to explore newsworthy and timely topics, themes, issues, events, and turning points in our nation’s history. The inaugural exhibition in the O’Brien Gallery will be The American Presidency: Photographic Treasures of the National Archives, presented by U.S. News & World Report. The exhibition will showcase more than forty images that give a behind-the-scenes look at the political and private lives of Presidents over the last 150 years.

  • A New Learning Center, opening in 2005, will offer in-depth educational programs for middle and high school students, workshops and materials geared to the needs of parents and teachers, and distance learning initiatives that will enable young people across the country to participate in the Archives' educational programs. The Center will also be accessible to all visitors who wish to learn more about the National Archives and its unique holdings.

  • New Website Interactives, to go online in 2006, will enable people across the country and around the world to experience the innovative interactive computer programs featured in the "Public Vaults" exhibition. The National Archives website,, already receives more than 30 million visits a year.

Leadership gifts in support of the National Archives Experience have been made to the Foundation for the National Archives by the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, Inc. and by Lawrence O’Brien III, his mother Elva O'Brien, and the O’Brien Family in memory of Lawrence F. O'Brien. In recognition of the McGowan Charitable Fund’s generous gift, the National Archives has named its new 290-seat theater in his honor. The National Archives' new expanded special exhibition gallery is named in honor of Lawrence F. O’Brien, an influential figure in the nation's political and governmental history, who served in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations

Major contributions of $1 million each in support of the "Public Vaults" have been given by two individual donors: real estate developer Willard Hackerman, a dedicated philanthropist and supporter of initiatives that foster scholarship and research; and urban planning and transportation innovator Alan M. Voorhees, who is a long-time benefactor of numerous cultural institutions and libraries. Dell Computer Corporation has both provided the equipment for the "Public Vaults" interactives and is contributing significant technical support for the ongoing maintenance of the hardware in the exhibition.

Additional support includes a $1 million leadership gift from AT&T, one of the first benefactors and advocates for the National Archives Experience. Major funding has also been provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Funds to support the restoration of the historic murals in the Archives’ Rotunda were given by Save America’s Treasures through a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Additional noteworthy gifts have been provided by the following individuals, corporations, and private foundations: Chevy Chase Bank, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John & Lisa Pritzker Family Fund, Jeanette Cantrell Rudy, and Al and Lila Self.

The National Archives and Records Administration, an independent federal agency, is the nation’s record keeper. Founded in 1934, its mission is unique — to ensure for the public and the President, the Congress, and the Courts, ready access to essential evidence. It enables people to inspect the record of what government has done. It enables officials and agencies to review their actions and helps citizens hold them accountable. It ensures continuing access to records that document the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience. The National Archives meets a wide range of information needs, among them helping people to trace their families’ history, making it possible for veterans to prove their entitlement to medical care and other benefits, allowing congressional oversight committees to evaluate agencies, and preserving original White House records. The National Archives carries out its mission through a nationwide network of archives, records centers, and Presidential Libraries, and on the Internet at

The Foundation for the National Archives is a non-profit organization committed to creating public awareness of the importance of the National Archives as a cultural resource in the American democracy – a place where historians, seekers of justice, and private citizens can find evidence on which truth is based. The Foundation was created in 1992 to support the Archivist of the United States in developing programs, technology, projects, and materials that introduce and interpret the Archives' collection for the American people and for people around the world. The National Archives Experience is made possible by a public/private partnership between the National Archives and Records Administration and the Foundation for the National Archives, which is working as the private sector partner to support the creation of these new programs and resources. The Foundation is generating financial and creative support from individuals and corporations to provide this extensive outreach, which has not been mandated by Congress.

The National Archives is located on Constitution Avenue, between 7th and 9th Streets, NW. Fall/Winter hours are 10 A.M.-5:30 P.M.

* * *

Visuals and additional materials are available to the media on request.

For press information, please contact:

The National Archives
Public Affairs Staff
202-501-5526 or 301-837-1700

Resnicow Schroeder Associates
Elizabeth Chapman or Johanna Goldfeld
212-671-5159 or 212-671-5177 or


This page was last reviewed on January 7, 2013.
Contact us with questions or comments.