Layers of meaning at National Archives’ ‘Records of Rights’


Workers put finishing touches on the new $13.5 million David M. Rubenstein Gallery featuring documents in the “Record of Rights,” which includes the Magna Carta and other Civil Rights documents at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The “Records of Rights” exhibition inside the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives makes clear that some of the biggest ideals in American democracy have also been the hardest won.

The 3,500-square-foot gallery, which opens Tuesday, includes this permanent exhibition that features sections on civil rights, women’s rights and immigrant rights. It uses photos, facsimiles, videos and interactive exhibits to immerse visitors in the divisive and transcendent issues that have animated American society for more than two centuries. It is anchored by the original documents whose words — reasoned, frightful and soaring — continue to add layers of meaning to the American experiment.

A $13.5 million donation from Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chief executive of the private-equity firm Carlyle Group, was matched with federal funds for the roughly $30 million gallery, the centerpiece of which is a display of a copy of the 1297 Magna Carta, on long-term loan from Rubenstein. The document, the first version of which was issued in 1215 and imposed limits on the king of England’s power over his subjects, had been tucked into a corner of the National Archives’ rotunda.

“People began to say, ‘Why don’t we have a separate gallery where we talk about the struggle for freedom and equality this country has gone through?’ ” Rubenstein says. “The Magna Carta inspired people to feel that they had certain rights that were a part of their inalienable rights.”

Linking the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution is one of the aims of the gallery. Another aim is to show that human rights have changed and expanded to include more people.

The gallery allows the archives to “show not only the impact of that document on our own rights but also to display three areas of rights that we’ve never had the space to display before,” says David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. “We hold these records so people can use them to hold their government accountable and track how decisions were made. There isn’t any other place in the city that has that repository.”

The gallery is divided into three sections and punctuated with quotes:

“The Earth is the mother of all people and all people should have equal rights upon it,” said Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce in 1879.

“Through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We the People,’ ” said Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) in 1974.

The “Bending Toward Freedom” section includes discharge papers from an African American solider who fought in the Revolutionary War to earn his freedom. It also features a 1949 letter to President Harry S. Truman from an 11-year-old with perfect penmanship: “I live about three yards from a white playground, yet it is a public school playground. I am a colored boy and not allowed to go on it.”

“Yearning to Breathe Free” details the story of Wong Kim Ark, a U.S.-born son of immigrant parents who visited China as an adult in 1895. He was banned from returning under the Chinese Exclusion Law, and his case, which reached the Supreme Court, helped establish the idea that those born in the United States are citizens. It details why immigrants left their countries and how they were greeted in America.

The quote in “Fearing European Depravity” comes from an 1846 petition that urged Congress to make immigrants wait 21 years before voting. A letter from the Ohio women of the Ku Klux Klan urges President Calvin Coolidge to establish immigration quotas by nationality.

These freighted issues have been with us from the beginning of the republic, says Bruce Bustard, senior curator. “There are examples of how welcoming we are but also how restrictive we’ve been with regard to who we allow in the country. That tension has been with us since the Founding Fathers.”

“Remembering the Ladies” includes original petitions for and against women’s suffrage and reproductions of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920, and the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell three states short of ratification in 1982. A government-issued flip book for factory supervisors encourages them to “interpret machinery operations in terms of household kitchen appliances.”

The exhibition’s center features a 17-foot-long interactive table that gives 12 visitors at a time access to more than 300 records from the National Archives.

“We designed it so that people can explore based on their interest,” says curator Alice Kamps.

She flips through a timeline of Native American rights, including treaty violations and the 1830 Indian Removal Act. She demonstrates how visitors can use the table to post comments on what they’ve just seen.

“We’re hoping this may inspire dialogue among visitors,” she says. “These protests go way back.”

Records of Rights

is a permanent exhibition at the National Archives, Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. www.archives.gov.

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