Revisiting the Rotunda

By Darin Painter Premium

“What is past is prologue.” That inscription appears on a large, gray statue that stands near the entrance to the research area of the National Archives building in Washington, DC. Family history buffs and others walking on Pennsylvania Avenue can read the phrase and consider the significance of America’s early days.

If the statue stood at the opposite end of the archives — the newly renovated exhibition side facing Constitution Avenue — perhaps the inscription could include this lighthearted line: “What used to be inside this place is now history.”

Gone are the helium-filled, slowly deteriorating glass and metal cases that secured the original Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights,and the first and last pages of the Constitution. Those founding documents of democracy, known collectively as the Charters of Freedom, were displayed in the archives’ Rotunda from 1952 until a major renovation began July 5, 2001. During the renovation, curators removed the Charters of Freedom from their original encasements and put them in more preservation-friendly displays.

The renovated area reopened to the public in September 2003. For the first time, you can view all four pages of the Constitution. And the new display cases make the documents more accessible to children and visitors in wheelchairs.

NARA also has added a Special Exhibition Gallery devoted to document-based exhibits on newsworthy and timely topics. Scheduled to open in September, the new 294-seat William G. McGowan Theater will show highlights from NARA’s 300,000 reels of archival footage. In November, NARA will open a permanent exhibition called The Public Vaults, which will offer a behind-the-scenes look at researching in the archives’ stacks (including a special part about genealogy research).

Exhibition hours at the renovated Rotunda are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 1 through the Friday before Memorial Day; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day; and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. after Labor Day. NARA spokesperson Susan Cooper recommends visiting the Rotunda in the early evening during the summer and weekday afternoons during the fall. Please note that exhibition hours are different from research hours. Admission is free. Call (202) 501-5000 for recorded information about programs and events.

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine