The vast collection of the National Archive & Record Administration (NARA) represents the physical record of the birth and growth of a nation in original documents, maps, photos, recordings, films and a miscellany of objects. The catalogue resonates with national iconography and historical gravitas (and pathos), and includes the Louisiana Purchase, maps of Lewis and Clark’s explorations, the Japanese World War II surrender document, the gun that shot JFK, the Watergate tapes and documents of national identity (collectively known as the Charters of Freedom). Nearby is one of the original copies of the Magna Carta. The Public Vaults, where most of the documents on permanent display are housed, has over 1,000 items on display at any one time. Sections are divided into themes inspired by words in the preamble of the Constitution: We the People is records of family and citizenship; To Form a More Perfect Union deals with liberty and law; Provide for the Common Defense is war and diplomacy, and so on.
There’s no doubt that the Archives’ star attraction is the Rotunda, where the original Charters of Freedom—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights—are mounted, triptych-like, in a glass case at the center of a roped-off horseshoe containing other key documents. A renovation completed in 2003 protecting them with high-tech gizmos proved itself in 2006 when the building flooded.
The building that houses the archives was opened in 1935 and designed to harmonize with existing DC landmarks—in other words, it’s neo-classical in style. In a city of monumental architecture the most distinctive features are the bronze doors at the Constitution Avenue entrance. Each weighs six and a half tons and is 38ft high and 11in thick. Though security is their main function, they also remind the visitor of the importance of the contents.
The Archives’ Lawrence F O’Brien Gallery hosts imaginative temporary exhibitions using all kinds of records and documents, including photographs.