David S. Ferriero 2014-02-12 14:28:07
There’s something new and exciting at the National Archives. Our Records of Rights exhibit in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery can be seen as soon as visitors enter the museum side of our National Archives Building in Washington, DC. This new permanent exhibit, the result of years of research and dedicated work by archives staff, opened in December 2013 and documents the long struggle that certain segments of our citizenry—African Americans, women, and immigrants—have endured before they acquired the full rights granted to white males in the Constitution. The gallery and the exhibit are made possible in part by the Foundation for the National Archives through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein, cofounder of The Carlyle Group. What’s On Display After entering the Rubenstein Gallery, visitors first come to the 1297 Magna Carta, which Rubenstein himself purchased at auction several years ago and which he has graciously put on permanent display. It is the only copy of Magna Carta in the United States. Magna Carta is important to this exhibit because its authors insisted on limits to the power of the English throne, just as our Founding Fathers later insisted on limits on the federal government. Inside the gallery, three areas highlight the stories of the groups that fought for their constitutional rights and document their advances and setbacks. In the section called “Remember the Ladies,” you’ll see petitions for and against woman suffrage. An assortment of records documents the continuing struggle and culminates with the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote, and the Equal Rights Amendment, which was never ratified. In the section on immigration, “Yearning to Breathe Free,” the 1860 census schedule for Lowell, Massachusetts, documents the presence of immigrant women “mill hands” from Ireland and Canada. In another encasement, you’ll see two originals from the court case of Wong Kim Ark, which went to the Supreme Court and is generally credited with establishing the concept of birthright citizenship as a legal precedent. In “Bending Towards Justice,” which highlights the civil rights journey of African Americans, there are two letters to President Harry S. Truman about segregation—on playgrounds and in hotels—each from a young African American boy. Visitors will also find records relating to the service of an African American Revolutionary War veteran who fought “to obtain his freedom” and was discharged as a free man in 1783 by General George Washington. Another encasement features a landmark document, which will change periodically. The first landmark document is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It not only made former slaves citizens, it contained an “equal protection” clause that has been used widely in such diverse legal areas as interstate commerce and school desegregation. In all, we now have thirteen original documents—including the Fourteenth Amendment and Magna Carta—in the encasements. All except the Magna Carta will rotate with other originals when the conservators recommend it. Most documents will be on display about six months. Interacting with Archives In the center of the gallery a large touchscreen table offers a selection of more than 350 archives documents, photographs, and films. The records visitors can browse document the struggle of Americans to define, attain, and protect their rights on a wide variety of issues, such as citizenship, free speech, voting, and equal opportunities. Visitors can explore the documents, highlight individual records, react to their stories, and share them with others. They can even continue their exploration at home with the web version of the table (www.recordsofrights.org). With the Rubenstein Gallery and its new permanent exhibit, visitors to the National Archives Museum will have access to even more of our remarkable holdings. We’ve improved that access with an elegant new Orientation Plaza, where visitors can find their bearings and plan their visits to the rest of the museum. Here at the National Archives, we are committed not only to preserving the documentation of the American story but also making it accessible in formats that are engaging and educational, whether on site or online.
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