- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

A visit to the National Archives in Northwest can bring the history of the nation alive for children and help them understand the past from a fresh perspective.

The archives building, best known for its Rotunda, is showing off a new face after a three-year renovation. The Rotunda has new displays and restored murals and has been revamped to improve accessibility.

Lee Ann Potter, director of education and volunteer programming for the National Archives, explains that the height of the cases holding the archives’ most popular documents often made it difficult for children or visitors in wheelchairs to see them.

“Accessibility was a big issue,” Mrs. Potter says. “It’s all at the same level now. You will no longer see parents having to lift their children up to see the documents; it’s no longer out of reach for some.”

The Rotunda has on permanent display the nation’s birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution; and the Bill of Rights — together known as the Charters of Freedom.

Each document has been treated to clean dirt and remove old adhesive, to mend any tears and to reattach loose bits of ink. These preserved documents are kept in new state-of-the-art enclosures, and each document is introduced by background information that helps children imagine the important events that created them and understand the impact they had on the world.

Mrs. Potter says the documents in the National Archives help make history real for children.

“They have all heard of John Adams and George Washington — but when they see the actual documents that these people are responsible for, it’s a neat connection,” she says.

She urges parents to explain to children that by visiting the archives, they are getting to see the “real thing.” They can encourage children to look for signatures they are familiar with and ask what they remember about the historical figures.

“They can say to them — you have never seen anything that these people actually did, and now is your chance,” Mrs. Potter says.

Visitors can see a wide range of additional documents, from the Louisiana Purchase to pages from President Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress on the State of the Union.

Mrs. Potter says the documents on display in the Rotunda are rotated regularly for preservation purposes.

“If you come to the archives every six months, the chances of seeing something new are very good,” she says.

As they examine and discuss the exhibits, visitors will feel American heroes looking down on them from the 14-foot-tall murals on the wall. The paintings have been cleaned and coated with a transparent synthetic varnish to protect the original paint and make the colors even more vivid.

“It’s fun to get [children] to try to figure out who is in the pictures — and why they are wearing tights,” Mrs. Potter says.

Terry Bolin, who teaches government history in Oklahoma, visited the National Archives with a group of students on an educational tour.

“It really helps to make concrete what we talk about in school, ” he says. “This is the seat of our government — you can find history here from 200 years ago. It’s a great experience. I really recommend it.”

One of the youngsters in the group, 14-year-old Austin Farabee, says he most enjoyed seeing the Declaration of Independence up close. “It just makes more sense now,” he says.

Additional changes in store at the archives will make visits more interactive and offer diverse activities. In September, a new 300-seat theater will show an assortment of documentary films, from NASA footage to World War II training films. Computer activities will allow each visitor to take on the role of filmmaker while creating a personal, unique film on a historical topic.

“There will be lots of opportunities for people to learn more,” Mrs. Potter says. “We want it to be more hands-on and get people to actively engage, so they own the experience.”

WHEN YOU GO

Location: The National Archives is located at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. between Seventh and Ninth streets NW, with entrances on Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues. The Rotunda entrance, which includes the Exhibit Hall, is on Constitution Avenue. The research entrance is on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Parking: Limited on-street, metered parking and pay lots are nearby. The closest Metro stop is the Archives/Navy Memorial stop on the Yellow and Green lines.

Hours: The Rotunda is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Labor Day. From the day after Labor Day through March 31, it is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. except Dec 25. From April 1 through the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, it is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Research hours are 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; and 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Saturday. The archives is closed to researchers on Sundays and federal holidays.

Admission: Free

Information: 866/325-7208, or visit www.archives.gov

July Fourth events

Fourth of July festivities are planned from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the National Archives, starting with a 10 a.m. reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Constitution Avenue steps of the archives building.

Other highlights include:

• Musical performance by the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

• History book fair and book signings.

• Voter registration.

• National History Day participants from across the country will present their winning exhibits and documentaries.

• Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and other historical figures portrayed by members of the nationally acclaimed acting troupe of the American Historical Theatre will mingle with the crowd and describe their roles in American history.

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