Wednesday , June 19 2024

Living History at the National Archives

The National Archives about to get a publicity boost from the new film National Treasure, in which treasure hunters set about to steal the Declaration of Independence (in view at the National Archives) in order to “protect it” (cruel to be kind).

Coincidentally (I assume), in real life the Archives have just opened an enthralling “public vaults” exhibit:

    The Public Vaults display at any given time about 1,100 records-originals or facsimiles of documents, photographs, maps, drawings, film or audio clips, allowing you to see the raw materials of our American democracy. Documents range from important treaties and legislation dealing with grave matters of state to snippets of the fascinating stories of individual citizens such as letters to the President and citations for military bravery.

    ….You begin your tour of the Public Vaults in the Record of America. This central pathway connects our Public Vaults and takes you on a journey through time and the changing technology of records.

    From George Washington’s handwritten letters to Abraham Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, most of the textual records in the Record of America are originals and will change from year to year. Don’t miss the 1823 Copper Plate of the Declaration of Independence or the facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation, both of which are on permanent display.

    Branching off of this pathway are five “vaults.” In addition to more great original records, the vaults feature new electronic tools that will allow you to explore fragments of our past in astonishing detail.

    Each of the Public Vaults draws its themes from words in the Preamble to the Constitution:

    We the People – records of family and citizenship;
    To Form a More Perfect Union – records of liberty and law;
    Provide for the Common Defense – records of war and diplomacy;
    Promote the General Welfare – records of frontiers and firsts; and
    To Ourselves and Our Posterity – keeping records for future generations.

    “We the People” focuses on family and the rights of citizenship. Here, you’ll learn that the National Archives has records about not only important and famous people but also ordinary Americans. In this vault, you might help someone establish U.S. citizenship or learn how to research your own family history though documents such as immigration records, naturalization papers, census schedules, draft cards, and homestead applications. You’ll also explore records about Native Americans, early settlers from Europe, people who instantly became Americans when their region was annexed, and the story of freed slaves during Reconstruction.

    “To Form a More Perfect Union” highlights records of liberty and law that illustrate the evolution of our democracy and how records have been used to hold Government officials accountable for their actions. In this vault, you can hear congressional debates on Prohibition in 1918 and reinstating the draft in 1940. You can also see materials and evidence preserved from famous investigations, such as those on Unidentified Flying Objects, the Kennedy assassination, the Kent State shootings, and Watergate.

    “Promote the General Welfare” emphasizes records of firsts and frontiers and shows how the human spirit and ingenuity helped to realize many of the promises of America as envisioned by our Founders. An exhibit called “20 July 1969” transports you back to the day man first landed on the moon. You’ll also be invited to identify original patent drawings for such things as the typewriter, the pencil, and the phonograph.

    “Provide for the Common Defense” is about wars and diplomacy. Records from the Revolutionary War through the Persian Gulf War paint a vivid picture of heroism, inspiration, and sacrifice over the decades. You can explore the Civil War records of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, an African American unit, and compare the records to the unit’s portrayal in the 1989 movie Glory. Or you can listen to parts of the actual conversations that took place in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    “To Ourselves and Our Posterity” focuses on the National Archives’ role in keeping our records for future generations. Here, you can see how a Government document becomes a record at NARA and learn how to care for your own family records. Here, you can learn that if you want to do research at NARA, you don’t have to come to Washington because NARA is all across America, with 17 regional records service facilities, 11 Presidential libraries, and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. And here, you can learn of the challenges NARA as an agency and we as a society face in preserving the electronic records of our Government.

    Records Matter

    Entering the Public Vaults is a journey of discovery. We want you to gain an understanding of your personal connection to the records in the National Archives. We want families to see how their own stories fit into our national mosaic and young people to be thrilled by the real-life drama of the American experience. And we want people of all ages to take action and use the Archives – to learn, to unravel, to discover, and to celebrate the stories of individuals, of families, of communities, and of our nation.

The Washington Post has more:

    Today the government’s document warehouse opens a permanent exhibition on the letters, films, recordings, photographs and maps that are the underpinnings of American history. This $7 million initiative is intended to make the work of the Archives more accessible — and to make history more interesting.

    ….In this 1,100-item display of the more than 10 billion items housed by the Archives, the visitor will see and hear, probably for the first time:

    • A wax cylinder recording of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, campaigning on the Bull Moose Party ticket. Though he’s remembered as vigorous and tough, his voice is surprisingly high-pitched and slow in the 90-second first-generation sound bite.

    • The handwritten text for an 1865 telegram Abraham Lincoln sent to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, saying simply: “Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plan.”

    • Ship records showing the immigration of Leslie Hope, later entertainer Bob Hope, from Britain in 1908. Also, Louis Armstrong’s draft card, circa 1917-18.

    • Silent footage of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer watching the atomic bomb being taken off a truck, right before the testing at the Trinity site outside Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945.

    • The deck log from the Navy destroyer Maddox recording the apparent attack by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in 1964, which led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and a full-scale war in Southeast Asia.

    • A family reel of George W. Bush, age 2, all bundled up and playing in the snow.

    ….Retrieval of information is central to “Public Vaults.” Its interactive touch screens give visitors the option of calling up more material on a particular subject, although it does not provide a direct link to the real archives. In one section, for example, the visitor moves the screen along a railing to stop in front of a mock storage box marked “Kent State.” Four records appear about campus protests against the bombing of Cambodia and the subsequent killing of four students by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970. There’s a letter from Leroy Satrom, the mayor of Kent, to the Ohio National Guard requesting support during the protests. Touch the screen again and a campus map appears with the locations of the shootings and movements of the guardsmen. Touch again and a handwritten note from one of the wounded students appears.

    Declassified materials from six other episodes in American history are inspected in a similar way. One is the 1917 “Zimmerman Telegram” from the German foreign minister urging Mexico to join World War I against the officially neutral United States, offering in exchange promises of reconquered land in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. When its code was broken by the British, the resultant uproar led to America’s entry into World War I. Other displays focus on the development of the atomic bomb, the trial of the accused Cold War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the U-2 spy plane incident during the last days of the Eisenhower administration, and a plan for war against the Soviet Union in 1946. The section also includes information on the “Cornflakes Project,” an endeavor by the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. It dropped anti-Nazi propaganda on German railroad stations in an effort to break Axis morale.

    ….There’s also a chance to be your own Steven Spielberg. The Archives has exquisite footage of D-Day that has been used time and again by filmmakers. Visitors can select scenes from the landing and edit their own two-minute version. The results are immediately shown on a large screen. Another gadget lets you create a seal similar to the one in the Oval Office.

Both my sister and sister-in-law, and their families, live in the DC area – the National Archives will be a must-see on our next trip there.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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