When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, one of my favorite vacation spots was Washington D.C. It was a relatively short drive from our home and we even took trips there on the train with my Cub Scout Troop.
That trip was probably the last time I visited the National Archives building, until last year.
My original plan wasn’t to visit the National Archives. I had planned on visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture but I found out it is so popular that during busy times you need a reservation.
I started to walk down the mall and it didn’t take long for me to remember it was August in Washington D.C. It was hot out. Really hot, and I was being the total tourist, walking outside during the worst time of day to take a walk.
I looked up and saw the National Archives and one thought crossed my mind. Air conditioning.
The second thought to enter was how long it had been since I stopped in to see the documents our country is founded upon. Might as well visit just to make sure the Declaration of Independence is still there and Nick Cage hasn’t stolen it.
Tip: Don’t steal the Declaration of Independence
It was late in the afternoon so most of the tour groups were done for the day. I only had to wait in line for a few minutes for a security check and I was inside. Of course, the first things I went to check out were the Founding Documents.
The rotunda of the National Archives is definitely the big draw, as it houses the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The rotunda was definitely darker than I remembered and that’s on purpose, to preserve the documents. Photographs are strictly prohibited in the area.
But I’m sure that some of you already knew these documents were at the National Archives. What made my trip fascinating?
When I was younger, I’m sure I only had the attention span to look at the three old papers in the glass case and wonder when could we go to the other cool museums. I’m older and smarter now so I left the rotunda to wander the museum.
What is the National Archives, really?
The National Archives and Records Administration is an independent Federal agency that preserves and shares with the public records that trace the story of our nation, government, and the American people. From the Declaration of Independence to accounts of ordinary Americans, the holdings of the National Archives directly touch the lives of millions of people. The National Archives carries out its mission through a nationwide network of archives, records centers, and Presidential libraries, and online.
There’s more inside this massive building than just three documents. I spent over an hour looking around the Public Vaults:
Go beyond the walls of the Rotunda into the “stacks and vaults” of the National Archives in the Public Vaults. Encounter fascinating original records (including Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams to his generals and audio recordings from the Oval Office) and interactive exhibits that allow you to “touch” and explore some of the most interesting documents, photos, and films we hold.
This is a huge exhibit going through all of U.S. history. Old movies. JFK’s speech at Rice University about going to the moon (which I memorized and presented to the class in high school history class).
Watergate. The Reagan assassination attempt. All of the biggies were there.
But that wasn’t all. I remember seeing a display of the White House china plates. Information about the first families and even something about the first pets. Room after room after room. The history of the United States. Our successes. Our shortcomings. Our people. All of our people. And our government, the good and the bad and even some of the ugly.
It was fascinating. And then I looked at my watch. I had only stopped in here to cool off and look at some old papers. Who knew all of this great stuff was in here? No one gushes about how great the National Archives is.
They even had some of Alexander Hamilton’s documents on display because even when you’re in Washington D.C., the kids nowadays want to know about Hamilton.
Everyone who goes to the archives stands in line to go the rotunda but if that’s all you do, it’s a shame. There is so much more at the archives than the documents that founded our nation. You’ll find the story of our nation. From the founding through the long and winding road of our history leading up to where we are today.
If there’s anything I’ve learned so far is that it pays to look back to the past because it helps remind you of your mistakes and keeps you from repeating them.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary