Not every visitor to Washington takes the time to look at some of the nation's precious manuscripts of freedom at the National Archives. The building, on Constitution Avenue, is a bit off the beaten tourist track, but it is an unforgettable experience for anyone.
Reopened last week after two years of renovation, the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom offers even more opportunities for Americans to examine the documents that anchor our freedom - the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
One significant change is that the Constitution, only four pages long, is now on display in its entirety instead of just the first and last pages.
The documents will be closer, literally, to the people. The Constitution formerly was inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Now, as one National Archive official commented, “It's going to look as if you can reach out and touch them. It's you and the documents.”
The 65-foot-high rotunda has been remodeled so that more of the nation's most important documents can be viewed, and in the proper context. They also have been carefully restored. It was found that the glass encasements were deteriorating, leaving small crystals on the surface of the paper. New airtight cases are filled with argon gas to prevent fading.
Despite their age and the slipshod handling of earlier years, most of the documents are in good shape. The Declaration of Independence is in the most fragile shape, and little handling was done of this document.
The test of any good display is how well it tells the story, and attention has been paid to this aspect of museum management. Viewers will be able to pore over many documents previously not on display, and if past experience is any guide, they will stop to look and read carefully many more recent documents that have played a historic role in the nation's recent history - Albert Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt alerting him to the potential importance of the energy that could be unleashed by nuclear research comes to mind. To make more room for the displays, some of the archives have been moved to another repository in College Park, Md.
In these troubled times, in a nation that still is seeking to come to terms with the long-term meaning of the terror attacks on the United States, it is important that citizens be closer, physically as well as intellectually, to the documents that tell the story of a free people.