National Archives Opens "Public Vaults" Exhibit
Bruce Craig, December 2004
After four years of planning the National Archives opened its "Public Vaults" exhibit on November 12, 2004. This 9,000-square-foot permanent exhibit displays letters, films, recordings, photographs, maps, and other archival items that provide a fascinating perspective on American history. This $7-million public-private partnership between the National Archives and the Foundation for the National Archives is intended to make the archives more accessible while also making the nation's history more interesting to visitors.
The "Public Vaults" exhibit provides a sampling of the archives' vast holdings and encourages visitors to search deeper into records. It features a selection of presidential documents (including sound recordings of presidents), investigatory records, newsreels, immigration records, and patent applications.
The exhibit begins with the Record of America hallway; this central pathway takes the visitor on a journey through time and the changing technology of records. Branching off this pathway are five "vaults." In addition to original records, each vault features new electronic tools that allow the visitor to explore fragments of the past in astonishing detail. The exhibit draws its themes from words in the Preamble to the Constitution "We the People" is the rubric covering records of family and citizenship, while "To Form a More Perfect Union" encompasses records of liberty and law. Records of war and diplomacy are under "Provide for the Common Defense," and records of frontiers and firsts are covered by "Promote the General Welfare." Finally, the archives' own goal, keeping records for future generations, is covered under "To Ourselves and Our Posterity."
Some rooms have the appearance of a library, while others have the vertical-box look of storage unit shelving. Numerous interactive touch screens give visitors the option of calling up more material on a specific subject. The designers have also incorporated new film editing techniques into the exhibit that allow visitors to use the archives collection of D-Day footage of to edit his or her own two-minute version of the landing on D-Day. For a virtual tour and details about the exhibit, visit the NARA's "Public Vaults" exhibit web page at: http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/visit/public_vaults_2.html.