The National Archives’ larger-than-life statues

Construction of the National Archives Building, close up of the structures created to house sculptures, December 1, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 79444223)

Do you want to learn more about the history and architecture of National Archives Building in Washington, DC? Join us online Thursday, May 24, 2018, at noon for a Facebook Live tour of the building’s exterior. For more information, follow us on Facebook!

On each side of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC (on Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues), sit two 65-ton statues. Each statue is more than 10 feet high and, with their bases, tower 25 feet above the sidewalk.

They were carved from 1934 to 1935, and each came from a single piece of Indiana limestone. The sculptors and carvers worked on site in temporary structures created for them.

Because the stones were so large and heavy, they had to be brought by train to Washington from Indiana on specially designed flat cars.

Rough block of stone from which one of the National Archives statues was carved, 1934. (Stone Magazine)

John Russell Pope, architect of the National Archives Building, used symbolism in all parts of the building, and these sculptures were no exception.

The two sculptures on the Pennsylvania Avenue, where researchers enter the building, are Future and Past. They are by Robert Aiken, who also designed the west pediment of the Supreme Court Building. Aiken was assisted by sculptor Attilio Piccirilli. 

Future is youthful woman gazing in contemplation of things to come. She holds an open book symbolizing what has yet to be written. “What is Past is Prologue,” from Shakespeare’s Tempest, is written on the base.

A1 Building
Future statue, by Robert Aiken, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

The carvings around the base represent arts and sciences—books and a lyre, eagles, torches, and swords. There is also an urn symbolizing the past.

In contrast to Future, Past is an old man gazing down the corridors of time. He holds a closed book representing history. The inscription, a paraphrase of Confucius, reads: “Study the Past” (Study the past if you would divine the future).

A1 Building; Study the Past
Past statue, by Robert Aiken, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

The base reliefs include symbols of strength and unity—shields, fasces (a bundle of sticks tied together representing strength through unity), an anchor, rams, and eagles. Also included is the Roman god Mercury with wings on his head and a staff of intertwining snakes. He symbolizes wisdom and appears in several places around the building.

Flanking the Constitution Avenue entrance, where visitors to our museum enter, are two statues called Heritage and Guardianship. They are by James Earl Fraser, who also designed the Constitution Avenue pediment. Fraser was assisted by sculptors David Rubins and Sidney Waugh and carver G. A. Ratti. 

A1 Building
Heritage statue, by James Fraser, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

Heritage symbolizes the government’s role in preserving the home. You see wheat symbolizing fertility; a child symbolizing future generations; a snake-bordered robe for protection of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom; and an urn containing the ashes of past generations.

The quotation on the base—“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future”—is from abolitionist Wendell Phillips. The accompanying reliefs on the pedestal includes a plow, cornucopia, lamp, and books—all symbols of the importance of home. The base also includes a winged globe with the United States in front, and an ox and horse.

In contrast to Heritage, Guardianship is a muscular man holding a plumed helmet.

A1 Building
Guardianship statue, by James Fraser, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

For protection he is wearing a lion skin and holding a shield and sword. He is also holding a fasces. His quotation, “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty,” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson. The pedestal reliefs show a quiver with arrows, a sword, and a shield.

You can visit our online catalog to see historic images of the statues.


One thought on “The National Archives’ larger-than-life statues

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *