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May & June 2002 Feature

American Originals—Treasures from the National Archives Major Traveling Exhibit Hits the Road

Stacey Bredhoff
Curator, "American Originals"

American Originals Exhibit in New York "American Originals" opened at the New York Public Library on October 5, 2001. (Photo by John Celardo)

"American Originals," the National Archives and Records Administration's traveling exhibition of documentary treasures, opened at The New York Public Library 3½ weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In a city that had just witnessed the crumbling of giant skyscrapers, many people were struck by the emotional impact of seeing these fragile papers preserved and protected in the quiet splendor of the library's public galleries. The documents appeared as silent witnesses to momentous events, and their power was palpable.

"American Originals" was first presented in the Rotunda of the National Archives in 1995 as a changing exhibition of original documents that greeted visitors to the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Over the years, the exhibition presented some of the most celebrated items in the National Archives holdings. Not only do the documents reveal dramatic moments in American history, they are themselves authentic artifacts. As physical links to the past, they have a unique power to connect people to another moment in time. With the Rotunda closed for renovation until 2003, the National Archives decided to undertake a traveling version of "American Originals," a selection of original materials that would include one of the nation's most revered documents, the Emancipation Proclamation.

Eight museums and libraries from New York City to Los Angeles have joined with the National Archives to bring the exhibition to thousands of Americans outside the Washington, DC, area. After opening in New York in October 2001, and moving to Chicago in February 2002, the exhibit will travel over the next 3 years to Columbus, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Hartford, remaining for 3 months at each site (see exhibit schedule). Not since 1947, when the Freedom Train took documents across the country, has a comparable collection of treasured and historically significant original documents been brought together to travel nationwide. The documents generate excitement wherever they appear, and NARA's partner institutions are developing programs in conjunction with the exhibit and bracing for the large crowds they hope to attract.

Seven milestone documents are featured at each of the eight venues: the voting record of the Constitutional Convention, 1787; the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, 1803; the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, 1862; Thomas Edison's patent application for an "improvement in the electric lamp," 1879; the German Military Surrender at the end of World War II, 1945; President John F. Kennedy's draft for his inaugural address, 1961; and the original Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, signed by Abraham Lincoln. To ensure its preservation, this last fragile document will be displayed for 4 days only at each of the venues.

A selection of additional documents will be rotated in and out of the exhibition as it makes its way across the country, both to appeal to the regional interests of visitors and to address preservation concerns.

After September 11, the stories in the "American Originals" documents seem to have an even deeper resonance. Turning to history, Americans can rediscover those traits that engendered the birth of the nation and sustained it for more than two centuries. Selected pages of George Washington's first inaugural address, from the records of the U.S. Senate, were shown in New York. Midway through the speech, delivered on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, just half a mile from the site of the World Trade Center, the first President spoke of "the sacred fire of liberty," and "the destiny of the republican model of government . . . as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."

George Fletcher, The New York Public Library's Brooke Russell Astor Director for Special Collections, reflected on the "American Originals" exhibition just a few days before it opened: "The documents show the sweep of history . . . the high-minded and the low-minded, [the exhibition] shows us warts and all. . . . The documents show what the United States is like spiritually, emotionally, in every way. They can show the world what the United States is like, what it's been like for a couple of hundred years and what we'll be like for the next couple of hundred years. . . . I hope a lot of people see it and remember it, especially the kids."

The documents in "American Originals" are drawn exclusively from the nationwide holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. The exhibition was created by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, and the Foundation for the National Archives.

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