Last year, I tried to get a discount on my entrance fee to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by explaining that I worked at the National Archives. The woman at the counter frowned at me. “The National Archives,” she said. “What’s there?”
The Constitution, a copy of the Magna Carta, I told her. It’s open to the public and they are on display.
“But is it a museum?” she persisted. They only gave discounts to people who worked at other museums.
“Yes,” I said. “Part of it is.” But as I walked away with my discount pass, I wondered, is the National Archives a museum?
Today is International Museum Day 2012 around the world, and I am still pondering the same question. I suppose the answer remains “part of it is.”
The National Archives is first and foremost, an archives. Our mission is to keep our holdings—billions of documents, artifacts, film, and recordings related to the Federal Government—safe and secure as well as accessible to the public.
The beautiful building that is downtown in Washington, DC, is an active archives. Researchers enter on the Pennsylvania Avenue side and come into our Research Room to use original documents. Staff are busy in the stacks in the center of the building pulling records like Revolutionary War files and 19th-century ship logs. Volunteers are helping to digitize Civil War records. Genealogists are poring over microfilm to find family members. It’s not a big building, but it’s busy with archival activity!
But if you enter in the Constitution Avenue side of the building, you won’t see any of that archival activity. Instead, you are entering the National Archives Experience. Our documents are on display for the public. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution are visible under glass in the Rotunda. Nearby is a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta in a new interactive case, and across from that is the Featured Document, which changes every month. And when you are finished in the Rotunda, you can walk around “The Public Vaults,” which is an exhibit space with documents, video, and objects. The O’Brien Gallery hosts larger changing exhibits with displays of documents from our holdings. So this part of the National Archives sounds like . . . a museum.
So, I can describe the downtown building as an archives with a museum in it. But that’s not the only part of the National Archives.
The 13 Presidential libraries are part of the National Archives, and each Presidential library has an archive managed by our staff that contains all the material related to that President. Each library also has a museum with recreated Oval Offices, exhibits on the President’s life, and traveling exhibits. The Nixon and Eisenhower libraries even have the childhood homes of the Presidents on site—and the Reagan Library has Air Force One! You can visit the Presidential libraries as a researcher or as a museum-goer. The idea of the museum is clear: each facility is called the “Presidential Library and Museum.”
But the National Archives also has regional branches across the country, from New York City to Anchorage. Their primary focus is archives—they hold permanent Federal records that pertain to their geographic location—but these facilities also have exhibit spaces in addition to research rooms, and many host events and speakers.
I asked Kimberlee Ried, Public Programs Specialist of the National Archives at Kansas City, if the National Archives is a museum.
“Visitors to the National Archives at Kansas City have a similar experience to that of visiting the DC location and the Presidential libraries. They can use our facility for research, but we always hope that they take advantage of the exhibit galleries,” Ried said. “We have two galleries, and the exhibits change every 4–6 months. In addition, the exhibition content is tied to our records. We provide public programming in conjunction with all of our exhibits so patrons really have an opportunity to learn more about what the National Archives has to offer in terms of our documents, photographs, and other materials.”
That sounds like a lot like a description of a museum.
I posed the same question to Public Programs Specialist Dorothy Dougherty. She works at the National Archives at New York City, which will be moving into a new space at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in NYC this fall. This building already houses the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“The National Archives space will include expanded reference room, welcome and learning centers complete with dedicated exhibit gallery space to showcase original documents from our holdings,” said Doughtery. “It will be an exciting new venture as we seek to expand our outreach and offerings to both our typical patron, new visitors and tourists alike.”
So, I’m back where I started. The National Archives is an archives. Researchers come to do research at regional branches and Presidential libraries. But the National Archives also has museum parts to it. Is it a museum? Well, not really. But sort of.
My favorite response came from Jim McSweeney, Regional Liaison at the National Archives at Atlanta: “Merriam Webster defines a museum as ‘A building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.’ As surely as National Archives facilities store the narratives, testimonies, and objects of our national experience, so too do they allow individuals to research and build their family history, perhaps the most dynamic and personal exhibit that a museum can offer. ”
Come visit our regional archives, Presidential libraries, or the building in Washington, DC, and make up your own mind on whether or not we are an archives or a museum!