Visiting the National Archives in Washington, D. C. probably won’t be the first thing that family members will request to do when visiting the nation’s capital. But don’t let that throw you off the track of a wonderful opportunity to fully ground your entire family in our nation’s history. Visiting the National Archives in Washington, D. C first as a high school student, then as a college student living in D. C., later with my husband and finally with my whole family, I developed a real attachment to what for many is a national shrine and surely a monument to the building of our democracy. You may have to lure your family into visiting the National Archives by telling them that there is no admission charge. But once they get inside the building they may well get caught up in the spirit of our nation that seems to linger in the rotunda.
You might begin your visit to the National Archives by stopping by the William G. McGowan Theater. It also is free of admission charges and seats almost 300 people. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a seat and even if you do, the theater only shows two movies so just wait a bit and you will find a place. All day long the theater offers a brief introductory film that will help to orient you to what you will be able to see while visiting the National Archives. If you and your family like films, you might enjoy “Charters of Freedom” which is shown in the same theater twice a day. Check on location for the times.
If you visit the National Archives before April 17 and have an interest in Civil War History, you have really hit the jackpot. On display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery is a monumental exhibit entitled “Discovering the Civil War”. This presentation is unique because it does not contain the customary collection of Civil War guns, uniforms, flags and bullets. Instead the display is of the paper and picture trail of the Civil War . What better time to see such an exhibit than during the 150 th anniversary of the Civil War.
Despite its films, exhibits and vaults, what will most grab your attention and help to ground your children and yourself in your nation’s history is the collection of documents to be found in the open rotunda of the National Archives building. To be sure there are a variety of historically interesting documents that lead up to and flank the principle treasures in the rotunda. Important in their own right they also point the way to the creation of three key documents in our American history.
You will want to take time to linger over these true stars of the National Archives. First view the Declaration of Independence which in 1776 announced to the British and the world that the thirteen colonies were in fact separating themselves from the power of England. Then feast your eyes on The Constitution of the United States, produced in 1787 to establish the method by which the newly freed colonies would become a functioning state. Finally cast your eyes on the words which guarantee the rights of all American as they appear for the first time in the 1791 document we still call “The Bill of Rights”.
We have studied these documents in school. Hardly a nightly news cast goes by that does not is some way relate to the contents of at least one of these documents. Visiting the National Archives puts you face to face with pieces of paper that have survived physically, philosophically and legally for more than 200 years. This is not a dull, boring history lesson. Visiting the National Archives allows you to get as close as possible to the great documents that have provided for the kind of life we, as Americans, enjoy today.
I will never forget my very first visit to the National Archives. I was hugely impressed by what I was seeing for sure. But there was something else. It was the enormous sound of quiet respect that seemed to hang in the rotunda, almost a church like reverence. Perhaps that is why I have returned so many times in my life to visit the National Archives. It is one certain spot to come dramatically near to the roots of our nation. It’s a place to remind yourself and your entire family what it means to be an American.