At the National Archives, it’s easy to get confused by ornate informational displays with exactly the same number of historic artifacts as a high school diorama: zero. (Photo credit National Archives)

Of all the somber, gray, columned buildings in D.C., the National Archives building is somehow the sternest. When neon-clothed tourists queue up around the building, they seem almost like an insult to its dignity — like a necklace of Froot Loops tossed onto the bearskin hat of a Buckingham Palace guard.

Despite my misgivings, I joined that queue last week, taking a spot behind a family of four from North Carolina. The dad, in a valiant attempt to entertain or perhaps educate his kids, began reciting the Declaration of Independence from memory.

On a Wednesday morning, the line for the National Archives wrapped around the block

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and, um …”

“That’s all you know,” his wife said.

“That’s all anyone knows,” the man retorted.

Luckily, for me and the family, the line moved quickly. After just 20 minutes, I was inside the building, emptying my pockets for a security guard. “Where should I go first?” I asked her. “The rotunda,” she said. “Beat the rush.”

That sounded like good advice. The building was filling up fast, and there was sure to be a long line in the rotunda to see the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Carefully following signs to the rotunda, I promptly got lost.

Eventually, I found a promising-looking clump of people and headed over, but it turned out they weren’t looking at the Constitution. They were all gazing in admiration at … a paperweight?

Thanks for helping the U.S. avoid a nuclear war. Here’s a paperweight. (Photo credit Sotheby’s)

“JFK gave these out after the Cuban missile crisis,” a man read aloud from the display.

Etched on the paperweight was a mushroom cloud and the words, “Well, that was a close one!” Just kidding. The actual paperweight was engraved with an October 1962 calendar with the 13 days of the crisis marked in bold. Boring.

I finally found my way to the line for the rotunda, and the mood was surprisingly solemn — especially given how many people were standing around in very loud clothing. It was almost as if we were in a place of worship, albeit one with a rather lax dress code.

I later discovered that the Archives’ churchlike atmosphere is intentional. The building’s architect, John Russell Pope, designed the rotunda to be a shrine to the country’s foundational documents. In fact, the Constitution originally sat on a raised altar near the center of the room. Before that, it was on display at the Library of Congress in front of a small marble slab where people regularly knelt, prayed and even wept.

People prayed and wept at this altar for the Constitution in the Library of Congress. (Photo credit LoC)

I asked a guard if he’d ever seen anyone pray or cry, and he looked at me like I was crazy. Chalk it up to more cynical times — or perhaps a National Archives renovation that, in 2003, scrapped the altar and moved the documents into less dramatic display cases.

After another 20-minute wait, I was admitted into the rotunda with a big batch of tourists. Most of us headed to the left and joined a line of people who, according to the last person in the queue, were waiting to see the Declaration of Independence.

“Why aren’t there any signatures on it?” a man asked once he got to the display case. “I guess they signed it later?” a nearby teen guessed.

When it was my turn in front of the case, I found the answer: A discreet label to the right of the document said “facsimile.”

Before a 2003 renovation, the Constitution display case was further from the wall and a little easier to pick out.

As I scrutinized the case, I realized that we had in fact all lined up to see just a series of displays about the Revolutionary War, including one that contained a copy of an early print of the Declaration of Independence. Maybe we were being sheeplike, but I think the mistake was one anyone could make. The copies of the documents were realistically yellowed, held in bronze-framed cases and flanked by security guards. That’s not the usual presentation for informational displays with exactly the same number of historic artifacts as a high school diorama: zero.

With some assistance, I found the real Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights at the far side of the semicircular room.

Here’s a diagram to help you avoid my mistake. (Ben Claassen III)

It’s probably easier to find the Charters of Freedom when the rotunda is empty — they’re under special yellow glass, for instance, and the walls behind them are embossed with their names. But when the room is crowded, it’s possible to miss them entirely, as I nearly did. And I wasn’t the only one.

“Did Tyrion leave already?” I overheard one woman say. “He didn’t even see the Constitution, did he?”

Her friend’s reply, I think, captures America’s can-do spirit in just 10 words — a feat of eloquence that even Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, would have to admire.

“Well, he can buy one in the gift shop, then.”

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