The National Archives has always had a peculiar problem. Walking around its rotunda was an almost mystical experience for generations of visitors who peered at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, trying to discern the signatures.
Then the sightseer turned quickly to the souvenir counter and purchased a pocket-size Constitution and maybe a flag, and the moment was over. Nearly a million people a year had this experience, zigzagging from the awe-inspiring to the pedestrian.
Now the visitor experience is dramatically changing at the Archives. Today the government's document warehouse opens a permanent exhibition on the letters, films, recordings, photographs and maps that are the underpinnings of American history. This $7 million initiative is intended to make the work of the Archives more accessible -- and to make history more interesting.
In 9,000 square feet, "Public Vaults" gives visitors a sampling of the Archives' vast research stacks. It features a selection of presidential remarks ranging from the public appearances to the private conversations the chief executives secretly recorded, findings from national investigations, newly declassified documents, newsreels, immigration records and patent applications.
In this 1,100-item display of the more than 10 billion items housed by the Archives, the visitor will see and hear, probably for the first time:
* A wax cylinder recording of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, campaigning on the Bull Moose Party ticket. Though he's remembered as vigorous and tough, his voice is surprisingly high-pitched and slow in the 90-second first-generation sound bite.
* The handwritten text for an 1865 telegram Abraham Lincoln sent to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, saying simply: "Let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plan."
* Ship records showing the immigration of Leslie Hope, later entertainer Bob Hope, from Britain in 1908. Also, Louis Armstrong's draft card, circa 1917-18.
* Silent footage of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer watching the atomic bomb being taken off a truck, right before the testing at the Trinity site outside Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945.
* The deck log from the Navy destroyer Maddox recording the apparent attack by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in 1964, which led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and a full-scale war in Southeast Asia.
* A family reel of George W. Bush, age 2, all bundled up and playing in the snow.
The material shows the moments that add up to history both in circumstances where America has failed and in times where the cause was won.
Four years ago the Archives decided it had to do more for the general public than just present the nation's founding documents. More than 250,000 people a year use the Archives' work and resources, which are available to the public. "Nothing we could do would be more impressive than taking people into our back rooms," says Marvin Pinkert, the Archives' director of museum programs. The solution was to give the visitor the impression of a backstage tour, enhanced greatly by computer technology and careful preservation of unique documents.
The design is a loop with a dozen separate alcoves, divided into topics that roughly follow tenets of the founding documents. Some rooms appear like a private library; others have borrowed the vertical-box look of storage units. Most of the Archives' holdings, after all, are paper. Gallagher and Associates, the exhibition's design team, however, has established a track record of bringing static items to life with its displays at the International Spy Museum. This addition uses generously the latest technologies being adopted by museums.
Retrieval of information is central to "Public Vaults." Its interactive touch screens give visitors the option of calling up more material on a particular subject, although it does not provide a direct link to the real archives. In one section, for example, the visitor moves the screen along a railing to stop in front of a mock storage box marked "Kent State." Four records appear about campus protests against the bombing of Cambodia and the subsequent killing of four students by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970. There's a letter from Leroy Satrom, the mayor of Kent, to the Ohio National Guard requesting support during the protests. Touch the screen again and a campus map appears with the locations of the shootings and movements of the guardsmen. Touch again and a handwritten note from one of the wounded students appears.
Declassified materials from six other episodes in American history are inspected in a similar way. One is the 1917 "Zimmerman Telegram" from the German foreign minister urging Mexico to join World War I against the officially neutral United States, offering in exchange promises of reconquered land in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. When its code was broken by the British, the resultant uproar led to America's entry into World War I. Other displays focus on the development of the atomic bomb, the trial of the accused Cold War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the U-2 spy plane incident during the last days of the Eisenhower administration, and a plan for war against the Soviet Union in 1946. The section also includes information on the "Cornflakes Project," an endeavor by the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. It dropped anti-Nazi propaganda on German railroad stations in an effort to break Axis morale.
Going back at least to Franklin Roosevelt, presidents have tried various ways to keep their private conversations private. But at some point they became public. Now you can hear a taped telephone conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Richard Russell when the president was trying to get him to join the Warren Commission investigating the Kennedy assassination. Russell said he didn't want to be on a committee with Chief Justice Earl Warren. "I don't like that man," the Georgia Democrat told Johnson, who taped the call. The president replied, "The reason I ask you is because you have that same kind of temperament and you can do anything for your country, and don't go giving me that kind of stuff about you can't serve with anybody."
Another section shows how art has borrowed from history and allows a visitor to research how close to the facts a filmmaker got. The story used is a 1989 movie, "Glory," which followed the recruitment and fighting of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment during the Civil War. Under the categories of leadership, courage, struggle and equality, the visitor can open drawers and see, for example, the exact records of the pay of the 54th compared with that of their white counterparts. Scenes from the award-winning movie are generously arranged in the display.
There's also a chance to be your own Steven Spielberg. The Archives has exquisite footage of D-Day that has been used time and again by filmmakers. Visitors can select scenes from the landing and edit their own two-minute version. The results are immediately shown on a large screen. Another gadget lets you create a seal similar to the one in the Oval Office.
With this exhibition, the National Archives has now provided depth to the flash of its famous documents. But it isn't finished yet. The rotunda has been renovated, and a theater focusing on documentary material opened last month. Next month a special gallery with rare photographs of the presidents opens, and next year the Archives completes the renovation with a learning center.