National Archives

Description And Comments

The National Archives is the United States’ warehouse for official, historic, and important public records. Besides the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, it holds more than 10 billion pages of documents; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; 25 million photos; and 700,000 sound and video recordings. The Archives also hold millions of records on U.S. military service, and family genealogy.

The Archives’ presentations are spread over two floors: The ground level contains an orientation area, the Record of Rights exhibition, and the Archives’ store. The upper level contains the Charters of Freedom Rotunda, holding the Declaration and Constitution; plus other exhibits pulled from the Archives collection and shown on the same floor. There’s also a lower level basement for the Archives’ small café.

Ground Level,

The Record of Rights, in the David M. Rubenstein gallery, is a permanent exhibit on the evolution of U.S. citizens’ rights over time. It begins with a look at the English Magna Carta from 1297. Magna Carta was originally written in 1215 by rebellious wealthy English landowners fed up with King John’s often capricious treatment, and above-the-law behavior. The original document was essentially a peace treaty between the two sides, spelling out a specific list of rights and responsibilities each side would agree to live by.

Most of the citizens’ demands are remarkably practical: one authorizes standard units of weights and measures throughout England for beer and wine; another dismantles royal fish traps on the River Thames. Other terms spelled out in the agreement, however, have shaped the idea of basic human rights for almost a millennium. In particular, Magna Carta guaranteed citizens the rights to a fair and speedy trial more than 550 years before those ideas were enshrined in Amendments V and VI of the U.S. Constitution. Magna Carta also helped create the idea of a “supreme charter” of government that couldn’t be altered by the executive or legislative branches alone. Although King John sought (and got) the agreement voided within weeks of signing it, later monarchs re-issued and updated the agreement for hundreds of years as an act of good faith between the government and its citizens. This version from 1297 contains updates gleaned from 82 years of experience in dealing with crafty kings and their lawyers.

Magna Carta is just the start of Record of Rights. When it was ratified in 1788, the U.S. Constitution contained no explicit guarantees for equality; freedom of speech, religion, or assembly; the right to bear arms; or any of the protections now known as the Bill of Rights, which were ratified in 1791. The Constitution was generally understood to apply only to white men: women couldn’t vote; slavery would be legal for almost 75 more years, and racial discrimination exists to this day.

However, as Record of Rights says, the long-term trend for U.S. civil rights is inclusion and expansion. What this exhibit does well is show the timeline of people and events that have contributed to this expansion, from the adoption of the 14th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and beyond.

That said, the civil rights material covered in Record of Rights is also covered in exhibits at the National Museum of American History, the Newseum, the Library of Congress, and especially the National Museum of African American History and Culture. If time is short, you only need to see one of these.

Upper Level

The centerpiece of the Archives’ collection is the Charters of Freedom Rotunda, containing the original U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Admittance to the rotunda is done in groups of around 30 people at a time, roughly every 5 to 10 minutes. The documents are encased in protective glass cases lining about half the rotunda’s circumference, starting with the Declaration on the left and ending with the Bill of Rights on the right. Once you’re admitted to the rotunda, you’re told to walk directly to whatever document you wish to view first. However, most people instinctively head left and form a long, slow processional to visit each text in turn.

The Declaration on display is the original document, written on animal parchment by Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, and signed first by John Hancock. Though it is on display, the Declaration is entirely unreadable because of age and wear. However, excellent copies of the document are available just past the rotunda’s exit.

The Constitution on display at the Archives is also the original document. It was written across five sheets of parchment, four of which can be viewed by the public. (The fifth page of the Constitution deals only with how it would be ratified by the states; it is shown rarely.) Unlike the Declaration, the Constitution is still legible, although its small lettering and age make it extremely difficult for visitors to read.

The Bill of Rights on display is the original 1789 Joint Resolution of Congress, proposing twelve additions to the newly-adopted Constitution. Articles 3 through 12 were ratified in 1791 and became the first ten amendments – the Bill of Rights. Article 1 specified how many members would be in the House of Representatives and how they would be apportioned. It had not been ratified as we went to press.

Like all of the proposed amendments, Article 2, dealing with when salary changes to Congress would take effect, needed approval by three-quarters of the states (10 of 14 at the time) to become part of the Constitution. It got 7 within 3 years - the seventh being Kentucky in 1792 - and then momentum stalled.

The next state to ratify Article 2 was Ohio in 1873, almost 81 years later. Even stranger, it would take another 105 years beyond that – 1978 – until the next state, Wyoming, also voted in favor of the amendment as a protest against congressional pay raises. By that time, the amendment needed 38 of the 50 states to vote for adoption. That happened relatively quickly, with the great state of Michigan putting it over the top in 1992. Article 2 is now enshrined as the 27th Amendment.

Like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is still legible up close, though visitors will find it impossible to read from where they stand.

Besides these documents, the East Rotunda Gallery displays one or two notable objects from the Archives’ vaults. Displays change about every two months. Past exhibits have included the original Coca-Cola bottle and patent; and Japan’s Instruments of Surrender from World War II.

Unofficial Tip: You can search the National Archives’ documents on their website.

Also in the upper level is the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, used for rotating, in-depth presentations on a single subject from American history. The most recent is Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History, covering our country’s long and often contentious relationship with beer and spirits.

Touring Tips

Make an advance reservation to avoid a long, outdoors wait to enter the Archives if you’re visiting during spring break, summer or a holiday. Reserved visits are available from 10:30 AM to 90 minutes before closing, daily. Admission to the Archives is free, but there’s a $1.50 per-person fee for reservations. The best way to reserve your time is on the Archives website.

U.S. military personnel in uniform or with valid military ID can enter through the Special Events entrance on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 7th Street.

All visitors are required to pass through an airport-style screening process with x-ray machines prior to entering the Archives. This process often stymies many visitors, especially those whose native language is not English, and it can take up to 20 minutes to complete. If you’ve got small children, find a restroom outside the Archives before getting in line. The museum also advises against bringing backpacks, large bags, or metal jewelry into the building. Also keep your camera at home – photography is prohibited throughout the building.

The Archives has a small café on the lower level, open from 10 AM to 2:30 PM daily.


Constitution Ave NW, between 7th and 9th Sts
Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Ave
Archives/Navy Memorial



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