I recently made my first visit to the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). This is one in a series of articles inspired by that visit to help you make your first visit to the National Archives.
If this is your first visit to the National Archives, plan on spending some time to see the public exhibits. The focal exhibit is, of course, the "Charters of Freedom" housed in the central rotunda. (Click here to see an online version of the exhibit.) When we visited mid-week in October at 10:15am, the line was about a dozen people long. If you visit on a weekend during the summer, after waiting in line outside for who-knows-how-long, it will take you an hour once you enter the building.
As we entered the ante-room to the rotunda, there on our right was a 1297 A.D. copy of the Magna Carta (sold for $21 million dollars last year)! Tourists were waltzing past it with nary a twitch of recognition of what they were passing. We stood and gawked for several minutes (at this historic document, not the clueless tourists). We've seen one of the surviving four originals in the chapter house at Salisbury Cathedral near Stonehenge where English tourists crowded around.
If there are no crowds, take a look at whatever exhibit is showing in the O'Brien Gallery. From now until 29-January-2009 you can see the signature page from the treaty ending the Revolutionary War and related items. The Public Vaults is a permanent exhibit with interactive displays and some treasures from NARA's private vault. (Some, clearly marked, are reproductions of documents or items too fragile for public display.) Louisa May Alcott is highlighted in an early (1850?) census register. It may surprise you to see just how large the original pages are and how they look bound in book form. (Supplementing, but not duplicating, the Public Vaults experience, the National Archives has produced an online Digital Vaults experience that might interest you.)
More information for planning this part of your visit is available on the National Archives web site. You can consult a PDF map showing the exhibit entrance on Constitution Avenue versus the research entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue. Admission to the exhibits is free. The exhibit hours shown on the map are correct.
- March 15 to Labor Day: visitors admitted 10:00am-6:30pm, closes at 7:00pm, every day.
- Off season: visitors admitted 10:00am-5:00pm, closes at 5:30pm, every day but Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The research hours shown on the map are (currently) incorrect. Research hours are
- 9 am - 5 pm: Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays
- 9 am - 9 pm: Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays
- Closed Sundays and Federal holidays
If you're going to last all day, you'll want to take a midday break, eat something and recharge your batteries. A cafeteria is conveniently available in the basement. Bring some cash; they don't take plastic. And while you're there...
How would you like a photograph of yourself posing with the signers of the Declaration or the Constitution? Copies of the 1936 Faulkner murals painted around the top of the rotunda can be found on the walls of the small dining area of the cafeteria. The figures are near life-size, maybe bigger. If you've brought your camera, you can stand in front of the wall and have a fellow diner take your picture. Move just enough of the tables and chairs out of the shot and no one will know you're not hanging in midair in the rotunda. (OK, maybe the light level will give you away. Or maybe the fact that it is impossible to hover in midair. But otherwise...)
Be warned. A mirrored copy of the cafeteria (in fact, sharing the same cashier) exists on the exhibits side of the building, but the dining room with the Faulkner murals can only be accessed from the research side of the building.