Archives Spotlight: Making the Constitution accessible

October is American Archives Month! To celebrate, we’re running a series of “spotlights” on the many locations that make up the National Archives. Today’s post features the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and was written by Rick Blondo, management and program analyst at the National Archives.

In 1999, National Archives staff members Bruce Ashkenas and Bob Menoche rated the original display cases.

The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights are on permanent display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Building. But up until 2003, some visitors could not easily see these important documents or the documents displayed along with them.

The design of the original display cases, built in 1935, meant that items were displayed flat or nearly flat with the front edge of the cases about 40 inches above the floor. This height and angle made it nearly impossible for young children or people in wheelchairs to see the documents.

The original cases were rated poorly by short testers.

New display cases, installed as part of a building-wide renovation from 2000 to 2005, make those documents easily viewable by all visitors. During the renovation, we learned there was no accessible design standard for exhibit display cases containing original archival records. We consulted with experts and used a mock-up to test different heights and angles of display.

In 1999, volunteers tested and scored the original display cases and a mock-up. Three volunteers—two adults and one child—were in wheelchairs. The other eight volunteers—six adults and two children—were ambulatory and ranged in height from four feet to over six feet tall.

Each volunteer scored a mock-up display case on three criteria: visibility (is the text readable from all locations?), glare (did the light from the dome above  make it hard to see?), and comfort (could they easily see the document without strain?). The mock-up could be adjusted from 30 to 36 inches high, and the angle of display could be adjusted between 10 and 30 degrees.

Volunteer testers rated the height and angle of documents in a mock-up for new display cases.

The display cases now in the Rotunda hold items at a 25-degree angle, with the front edge of the case 28 inches above the floor.

Any time a building undergoes a major renovation, the design must comply with the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (which apply to Federal buildings) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

To allow better access to the Rotunda to see the Constitution, we opened new street-level entrances along Constitution Avenue. These lead to a new lobby with new elevators to the Rotunda (one level up) or theater (one level down). At the Rotunda level, the elevator lobby is at the same elevation as the Rotunda floor and is accessible through new openings cut into the Rotunda walls.

The renovated Rotunda reopened to the public on Constitution Day, September 17, 2003, with no architectural barriers to prevent visitors from seeing the documents.

The new display cases are just right for all visitors to view the documents.

One thought on “Archives Spotlight: Making the Constitution accessible

  1. Seeing children, adults, and people in wheel chairs all able to see the Charters in the new display cases is very heart warming. The new Rotunda display cases are accessible to all, and the visibility of the documents is also much improved. Good to see the much younger Blondo boys enjoying history with their dad.

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