Prologue Magazine

Developing a New National Archives Experience

Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2

By John W. Carlin

Archivist of the United States


I want to take this opportunity to update you on one of our most exciting initiatives here at the National Archives and Records Administration—The National Archives Experience.

As you may know, we are in the midst of a major renovation at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and the Charters of Freedom are undergoing some necessary conservation work.

When this work is done, visitors to the National Archives will not only be able to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in new, more accessible encasements, but they will also discover for themselves the role that records play in the history of our country and the lives of Americans.

I also hope that visitors will come to realize that the records we safeguard are theirs to use and contain valuable information about their families, communities, and government. It is this experience—this discovery that records matter both to individuals and to the society in which they live—that will be the core of the National Archives Experience.

The National Archives Experience will not be a static exhibit at the National Archives Building but rather a collection of interactive experiences. There are seven components of the National Archives Experience.

The Rotunda will house the Charters of Freedom and convey the spirit of these great documents of democracy. In order to enhance the viewing of these historic documents, handheld audio speakers with recordings available in several languages will give visitors a new appreciation for the Charters and their role in the development of our democracy. The sense of nationhood illustrated by the Declaration, the government of laws established in the Constitution, and the individual liberties proclaimed in the Bill of Rights will be celebrated in the Rotunda. These same principles will be made tangible in the documents and interactive technology contained in four Public Vaults.

The Public Vaults will be designed to give visitors the perspective of going "inside the stacks" of the National Archives, where they can see for themselves some of our most interesting and relevant records. A central walkway called the "Record of America" will connect the vaults and will chronicle American history through two dozen original documents—from George Washington's letters to George W. Bush's electronic records.

Once inside the Public Vaults, visitors will soon realize that they have not just been given behind-the-scenes access to the National Archives, but they are now inside the past, and able to glimpse the very heart of American government.

Four subject-centered vaults—"Families," "Democracy," "Exploration," and "Defense"—will bring the records to life through interactive experiences and connections to everyday life. Visitors can help an elderly widow establish her identity as an American citizen; listen to the Oval Office conversations of five Presidents; follow the trail of Zebulon Pike by tracing their fingers on a touch-screen map; and "become" a filmmaker using our records to create a moment of a film on D-day. These vaults, individually and collectively, are designed to let visitors see for themselves the very real power of records.

In addition to the Rotunda and the Public Vaults, fascinating and diverse Changing Exhibits will give a detailed look into specific aspects of U.S. history that expand on the themes of the Public Vaults.

The new Theater will feature a continuously running film illustrating the relationship of records and democracy through the lives of real people, as well as special films, documentaries and author lecture programs.

The Learning Center will be our link to educators and students, incorporating our current education programs with new and exciting educational opportunities both on-site and through distance learning. Knowing that we can never stop learning, we will also offer a variety of workshops and other programs geared to adults.

The renovated Archives Store will be both friendly and informative, offering books and souvenirs and giving visitors a way to take home a piece of the Archives. Finally, the Internet will play an integral part in the National Archives Experience, both for those who can't visit us in person and those who wish to learn more about the Archives and our records on their own. It will be a gateway to everything I have talked about—the Charters, the Public Vaults and Exhibits, the Theater and Learning Center, and even the Store—while also providing access to the records themselves.

It is our intent that visitors leave the National Archives Experience with a new appreciation for the role that records play in our society. They will see how records can help us to accurately understand our past and how records enable us, as citizens, to hold our government accountable for its actions, and claim our rights, entitlements, and liberties within a democratic society. By looking inside the vaults of the National Archives, visitors will come to understand that our records don't just tell us what happened in the past—they also help us to uncover the truth and pursue justice today.

Visitors will also see how government records are open and accessible to them and can be seen and used not only in Washington, DC, but at Presidential libraries and regional archives around the country as well as on the Internet. We hope the National Archives Experience will clearly illustrate how records serve as the link between our past and our future, by telling the stories of individuals, families, and communities as well as how the actions of our leaders have shaped our history.

The National Archives Experience is in development now, with many people working hard to turn ideas into reality. None of this would be possible without the support of the Foundation for the National Archives, a not-for-profit organization that is taking the leadership role to develop the National Archives Experience.

In a public/private partnership, the Foundation is working side-by-side with NARA experts and the design firm of Gallagher and Associates to shape the character of the project. The Foundation, in its commitment to find the funding required to finish the project, is actively seeking new members who want to contribute to this effort. For more information, please call the Development Office at 301-837-2097.

The Charters of Freedom will go back on display in September 2003. The National Archives Experience as a whole will debut to the public on July 4, 2004, and you can be sure we will throw a great party to celebrate.

I know that the months ahead will be very busy and exciting, as we work to turn the noise and dust of renovation into a new, one-of-a-kind interactive visitor experience.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1934 signed the legislation to establish the National Archives, said,

    To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things.
    It must believe in the past.
    It must believe in the future.
    It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

Through the National Archives experience, visitors will examine the past and envision their own future and the future of our country, And I believe the public will come to see what we at NARA already know—that the National Archives is not a storage place for old, dusty paper, but a fascinating, relevant and very necessary part of our democracy that holds the stories of our people and our nation and the makings of our future.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.