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National Archives (Washington DC, USA)

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700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20408.

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      14.01.2001 03:50
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      The National Archives in Washington D.C. are well worth a visit, and unlike many of the other gargantuan museums, won't take several hours to go round! Like all of the museums in Washington, entry to the National Archives is completely free of charge, however, you do have to go through a metal detector as you enter. The reason? Because some of the most important documents in the history of the Western world are on display here. The National Archives building is set a little way back from the Mall in Washington D.C., between the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Natural History, behind the National Sculpture Garden. It houses three of the most fundamental documents safeguarding the "democracy" of the United States of America – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, along with a number of other documents of political and historical importance. The exhibition area is divided into two areas – the Rotunda and the Circular Gallery. ROTUNDA The Rotunda is where you'll find the important documents, the "Charters of Freedom", housed behind triple-filtered yellowed glass. The Declaration of Independence is displayed above the first and fourth pages of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. To get a closer look at the documents, you have to queue in single file along the left side of the Rotunda, and wait your turn. Your opportunity to squint at these celebrated documents is pretty much guaranteed to disappoint – the triple-filtered glass almost entirely obscures the script of the documents – however, there is something deeply impressive about the reverence with which have been displayed and maintained. Nonetheless, despite the impenetrable glass shield, you can still make out a few words in the documents, and John Hancock's familiarly ostentatious signature on the Declaration of Independence remains quite legible. There is a displa
      y case in the Rotunda explaining what precautions have been taken to ensure that no further damage happens to the Charters of Freedom. Two murals were painted for the walls of the Rotunda in the 1930s, by Barry Faulkner. One depicts Thomas Jefferson presenting a draft of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, the other shows James Madison handing the Constitution to George Washington. There are charts in the Rotunda identifying all of the figures in the two murals, be sure to look for Samuel Adams – patriot and brewer! Also in the Rotunda is one of four remaining copies of the Magna Carta, dating back to 1297, and which formed a basis for the formation of the US Bill of Rights. Around the edge of the Rotunda are display cabinets, housing temporary exhibitions of documents from the National Archives. When I visited in January 2001, these consisted of 'Treasures of Congress', and included Bills for amendments to the Constitution, and a document showing the results of the first election in the United States (which was a lot less controversial than the recent one!). Since the National Archives include such documents as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks statement signed by the US and Russia in 1972, the Japanese surrender document signed in 1945, and the manifest of a slave ship which arrived in Georgia in 1795, there's a great deal of scope for a wide range of fascinating historical exhibitions. The Rotunda also contains the National Millennium Time Capsule, housing a collection of items donated by schoolchildren, former presidents, national medal winners and American celebrities. The capsule stands in the middle of the Rotunda to be opened in the 22nd century. There seems something oddly redundant about the maintenance of a time capsule alongside an itemised list of its contents, which will be opened within the next 100 years, but if you're impressed by big chunks of metal, you'll love this.
      CIRCULAR GALLERY The circular gallery also plays host to a series of temporary exhibitions. When I visited, in early January 2001, there was an exhibition entitled 'Picturing the Century' on display. The exhibition consisted of photographs from the National Archives, depicting Americans and American Life in the Twentieth Century, from marines in Vietnam to Clinton blowing his saxophone. This exhibition continues until the 4th July 2001. OTHER THOUGHTS Photography is very much frowned upon at the National Archives, and guards are unlikely to react kindly to seeing a flash bulb going off. Although the documentation for the museum claims that cameras which don't require a flash are acceptable, they still give you dirty looks for daring to get your camera out. The National Archives store is excellent. You can get reproductions of the Charters of Freedom, in pretty much any size you like (from postcard to poster), as well as books explaining their historical and political significance. There are also the usual range of tacky souvenirs, like tiny plastic White Houses and National Archive biros, but there was actually more on offer here that I was actually tempted to buy than in most museum shops. CONCLUSIONS Yes, the Americans never stop blowing their trumpets about how great their nation is, and when you go to a museum like this, you really do start to believe it. Personally, I'm impressed by how robust the Constitution, with its 27 amendments, has proved to be in safeguarding the democracy of the nation for over 200 years. I found that there was definitely something impressive about seeing the Charters of Freedom in person, even if they were neatly obscured by the precautions taken to preserve them! If all you want to do is see the Charters of Freedom, you can probably get round the museum in about 10-15 minutes, depending on the length of the queue. When I visited, in the middle of win
      ter, there weren't that many tourists, so I got to the documents pretty quickly. To look at everything on display in the National Archives building will probably only take about an hour, and provides a fascinating introduction to American history.


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