New Web Exhibits Explore the Inside of the National Archives Building

Today’s post comes from Lily Tyndall and Austin McManus of the National Archives History Office.

National Archives Rotunda

The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, 2014. (Photograph by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

Three new online exhibits about the National Archives are now available on Google Cultural Institute. These exhibits allow viewers to learn about the interior of the National Archives Building, from symbolic design to exciting exhibits.

The online exhibit Inside the National Archives Building brings visitors into the Rotunda and presents John Russell Pope’s symbolic design for the National Archives as a temple to American history.

As the lead architect of the National Archives, Pope intended to fill the building with intricate symbolism to reflect American ideals of liberty, protection, democracy, and unity. He specifically designed the Rotunda to house the Charters of Freedom, though these documents did not arrive for many years after construction ended.

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Eagle and Mercury/Medusa detail, Rotunda gates, 2014. (Photograph by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

Although the larger-than-life statues, quotations, and reliefs on the building’s exterior makes it clear Pope designed the National Archives to represent history, knowledge, and freedom, subtle symbolism and purposeful design in the interior of the building demonstrate the importance of the National Archives and its mission.

For example, the eagles that stand guard atop the bronze gates that open into the Rotunda, as well as those rising high above the Charters, represent freedom, strength, and courage.

The medallions on the bronze gates feature the face of either Medusa, who represents protection, or Mercury, who represents wisdom. Both are well-fitting in the Rotunda, as the National Archives mission is to educate visitors on American history and protect that history.

Beyond the Rotunda: Public Spaces in the National Archives Building, explores the various exhibits, research, and education spaces in the National Archives outside of the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

For instance, the David M. Rubenstein Gallery holds the “Records of Rights” exhibit, which features an original 1297 Magna Carta. There visitors can discover how Americans have fought for their rights of citizenship, voting, and free speech through the centuries.

The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery provides a temporary exhibit space for short-term exhibition based on documents in the National Archives holdings.

McGowan TheaterNational Archives Building Washington, DC September 2004

McGowan Theater, National Archives Building, September 2004. (National Archives Identifier 66786672)

In the Boeing Learning Center, visitors can participate in hands-on activities to analyze primary documents and learn about the archival work done at the National Archives. And the state-of-the-art William McGowan Theater hosts conferences, film viewings, and lectures.

The final exhibit, Creating the Public Vaults of the National Archives, delves deeper the creation of the permanent exhibit space of the National Archives.

In the early 2000s, the National Archives undertook an endeavor to provide a behind-the-scenes look into the important work accomplished daily by the National Archives. This project became the Public Vaults, the permanent exhibit space of the National Archives, and this online exhibit tells the story of how the project was completed.

Public Vaults for Repository

The Public Vaults, October 29, 2004. (National Archives Identifier 66786870)

The project started as a need to renovate the National Archives Building in order to comply with regulations associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1989. Out of this renovation project, the idea for the Public Vaults exhibit space was born.

All three exhibits, plus dozens of other National Archives online exhibits, can be found on Google Cultural Institute.

Want to take a live look at the building’s interior? The Museum of the National Archives is open seven days a week, 10 A.M. – 5:30 P.M, every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

If you want to research our holdings, visit us online for tools on researching records.

Interested in learning more about the history of the National Archives? Visit the National Archives History Office website which has more exhibits, photos, and resources about the agency’s history.

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