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.
Like Gaul, “Records of Rights” is divided into three parts. Each part concerns an oppressed group. The first, “Bending Towards Justice,” depicts the oppression of African Americans. The next part, “Remembering the Ladies,” depicts the oppression of women. The third, “Yearning to Breathe Free,” depicts the oppression of immigrants—though by this time, as Edward Rothstein noted in a scathing review in the New York Times, you’ll be at a loss to come up with a reason why any immigrant would want to come here. Under the section “Equal Rights,” we find “stories about Jim Crow laws, violence against Asian immigrants, and discriminatory voting laws.” Under “Rights to Freedom and Justice,” we find “stories about slavery and other forms of servitude, the Ku Klux Klan and mob violence, and Japanese internment.” American history is truly a glorious pageant.
The exhibits readily acknowledge that the Founders and other powerful white men talked a good game. But the curators are here to make us wake up and smell the coffee, with the goal of “perfecting democracy,” as the press release said. The juxtaposition of artifacts makes the point clear. The curators take care that any glimmer of American idealism—say, the deed to the Statue of Liberty, included in the immigrant exhibit—is quickly snuffed out with a companion artifact: in this case, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The original 19th Amendment is shown, recognizing women’s right to vote. A grand achievement, yes? Look right next to it: the Equal Rights Amendment, “introduced in Congress as a way to end discrimination against women.” America rejected it. Pfffft.
Events of little or no historical significance, however interesting in themselves, are elevated into landmarks simply because they echo the curators’ parochialism: the Zoot Suit riots, the Double V campaign by the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, Muhammad Ali’s “fight for justice.” I am one of many millions of lucky Americans who had forgotten all about the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977—until I ran into a large section devoted to “The Spirit of Houston,” complete with video and still pictures: “Attendees at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston are shown here supporting privacy of one’s body.” At the same time, major strands of American history are ignored altogether, though they are surely essential to the work of the Archives. Evidently the major contribution the military made to American life was to get desegregated after World War II. That was the war when all those Japanese Americans got interned.
“What About Contemporary Issues?” the curators ask at various points in the exhibit. They answer with a disclaimer that they simply lack the material to deal with current controversies: “Most of the records in ‘Records of Rights’ were created before 1980 because the National Archives generally receives permanent records when they are 30 years or older.”
It’s a sly evasion, for even the most manic 12-year-old will see current controversies hovering everywhere around the exhibit, with the unfailing message that much work remains to be done in our democracy-perfection project. We learn about the “victims” in the war on drugs (not innocent bystanders caught in gang crossfire, but dealers harshly sentenced for selling crack). The section on women’s rights proceeds blow by blow until it reaches a triumphant culmination: a photograph showing President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Mrs. Pelosi looks particularly happy. And we get a 1949 letter from Harry Truman to a friend who had criticized the president’s plan to socialize the nation’s medical care.
“Nobody is working for socialized medicine,” Truman writes, in the same peevish, imperial tone that his admirers call “plain speaking.” “There are a lot of people like you who need straightening out on this subject.” Some things never change.
Meanwhile, as they wander from injustice to injustice, visitors will likely begin to feel the drag of the décor, which weighs as heavily on the spirit as the exhibits themselves, for all the bright flourishes of touchscreens and video. Cyclone fencing and cinder block evoke the immigrant experience; another fence is intended to show the barriers thrown up against marching suffragettes; badly painted walls of faux brick under a corrugated metal ceiling suggest a segregated bus station in the 1950s Deep South. Stenciled on one wall are the words “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” The words are meant to be chilling.
At last visitors do get to ascend, though without grandeur. Off to the side of the exhibit, opposite the gift shop, a marble staircase leads to the rotunda where the nation’s charters are displayed. Earlier generations of curators and archivists referred to this room as “the shrine.” Now the word is used ironically if at all. After the bludgeoning administered by “Records of Rights,” the chance to see the Declaration and the Constitution seems less a patriotic mission than
an afterthought. You enter through an unassuming side door. The little steps that used to raise you to eye level with the Declaration are gone, along with the imposing bronze showcase that set it above and apart. Now the founding documents are encased hip high, so you can look down on them.
What an attraction for tourists! I’ve been to the Archives a few times lately, and I can’t measure the reaction of the Americans who have come from all over. Are they surprised to learn that the caretakers of the country’s patrimony are so contemptuous of it? Or is it old news by now?
At least the old grand stairway is still there, outside, on the other side of the great bronze doors. It’s only used as an exit, however, and nowadays the summer glare and clamor of Constitution Avenue come as a relief.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.