It wasn’t so long ago that visitors to the National Archives, in Washington, D.C., were expected to ascend. A trip to see the nation’s founding documents was an uplifting experience, literally. A broad flight of stone steps drew visitors up from the summer glare and clamor of Constitution Avenue to a porch high above, and from there through great bronze doors into the cool and quiet of a vast rotunda. Once inside, another rise of stairs brought them in line of sight of the Declaration of Independence, set upright in a bronze display case, and a final group of stairs placed them face to face with the Declaration itself, faded behind glass and washed in a yellow light. The Constitution was there, too, and the first page of the Bill of Rights. A fitting payoff for all that climbing.
The Archives is still one of the premier attractions for tourists in Washington, but visitors no longer make such a grand ascent. They’re not allowed to. As at the Capitol building and the Supreme Court, unauthorized citizens can no long-er climb the broad staircase outside to enter through the bronze doorways. Instead, as at the Capitol and the Supreme Court, they gain access around the back of the building, on the bottom floor, and then once admitted they get to the ceremonial spaces by the backstairs, like a scullery maid.
Visitors to the Archives will see something new this year, after they pass through a ground-level, hard-to-find, low-ceilinged entryway bristling with cops and metal detectors. A few years ago, the philanthropist David M. Rubenstein donated $13.5 million to build a history museum on the ground floor. The David M. Rubenstein Gallery opened in December. It should not be confused with the David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall, which is at Mount Vernon, or the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which is at Duke, or the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History, which is on Lafayette Square, and certainly not with the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. That’s at the zoo.
The gallery houses a permanent exhibit titled “Records of Rights.” A press release says the exhibit is “a journey of exploring America’s continual efforts to perfect liberty and democracy.” The journey begins with what nobody has dared to call the David M. Rubenstein Magna Carta, which he bought for $21.3 million a few years ago and immediately loaned to the Archives. On either side of the glass case are translations of the document and brief, informative histories of what Magna Carta has meant for the development of popular government.
This part of “Records of Rights” is pretty straightforward, refreshingly so for anyone who has the bad habit of frequenting contemporary history museums. In keeping with today’s curatorial fashion, the Archives museum is pitched to the intelligence and attentiveness of a slightly unruly 12-year-old boy. Wide aisles and open spaces accommodate running, skipping, and scampering, and the muted, pinpoint lighting offers many shadows from which to pounce on unsuspecting classmates. The exhibits are ruthlessly “interactive”—although not “immersive,” which is now the ideal of museum designers. “Interactive” is a close second, though. At every point our impatient little prepubescent
is confronted with stage-prop doors and touchscreens and passageways and optical illusions and shifting soundscapes and moving images and hand tools and levers on the theory that, because children like to tap, slam, poke, jiggle, open, shut, hit, throttle, bump, and slide, they should always and everywhere be encouraged to do so, even on those occasions when they might be expected to just sit still and shut up. But of course there’s nowhere to sit.
The disarming forthrightness of the Magna Carta exhibit seems like a ruse in retrospect, for the rest of the museum’s content is shaped by the interests and views of academic historians. These days historians are consumed by their indignation at American injustice. Even the most ulcerated mossbacks have come to see that the traditional study of U.S. history omitted many indispensable elements—to cite one fashionable example, the decisive use of “colored” troops during the Civil War. Historians have been so busy correcting these omissions that they’ve lost the thread of the main story they’re supposed to be correcting. “Records of Rights” is all corrective, a bill of grievances presented by the curators to the hapless tourists who stumble in from the glare on Constitution Avenue.