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November 2004: Opening the Public Vaults

Two girls at a kiosk
Interactive features of the exhibit units allow visitors to delve deeper into the records.

Every day, hundreds of researchers come to the National Archives in Washington, DC, and our regional facilities around the country. They explore their families' pasts, make documentaries, investigate historical mysteries, or pursue their rights in court. They copy documents, screen films, and reproduce photographs. Our new permanent exhibit, the Public Vaults, which opens on November 12 at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, lets you walk in these researchers' shoes and journey into the working Archives––the stacks and vaults where the records of all three branches of the Federal Government are kept.


G Washington's signatureVisitors begin their tour of the Public Vaults in the Record of America. This central pathway of the exhibit stretches from George Washington's handwritten letters to the first Presidential web site. Most of the textual records in this corridor are originals and will change from year to year. Don't miss the 1823 copperplate of the Declaration of Independence or the facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation, both of which are on permanent display.

Titanic lifeboat
Photographs of Titanic survivors in lifeboats are found in a case file of a limitation of liability suit brought after the liner's sinking in 1912.

Branching off of this pathway are five "vaults": We the people––records of family and citizenship; To form a more perfect union––records of liberty and law; Provide for the common defense––records of war and diplomacy; Promote the general welfare––records of frontiers and firsts; and To ourselves and our posterity––keeping records for future generations. In addition to more great original records, the vaults feature new electronic tools that will allow you to explore fragments of our past in astonishing detail.


Have you ever written a letter to the President? Seventh-grader Andy Smith asked President Ronald Reagan for Federal funds to clean up a disaster area––his room. In the Public Vaults, you'll find dozens of surprising stories in the National Archives' records. Read first-hand accounts from battlefields, identify the 1830 patent for a submarine explorer, or investigate records from the sinking of the Titanic. Whatever your age, whatever your interests, there are stories in the Public Vaults for you.


Go behind the scenes and listen to congressmen debating Prohibition, eavesdrop on the President and his advisers discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis, or read once-secret documents about espionage and code breaking. In the Public Vaults, you'll discover documents, recordings, maps, and photographs that reveal the stories that made history.


screen shot of great seal interactive  
One interactive unit allows you to create your own version of the Great Seal of the United States.  

Researchers, filmmakers, designers, lawyers, historians, and others use our records every day––and so can you. In the Public Vaults, you can become a filmmaker and edit your own documentary about the D-day invasion or become a designer and create a new Great Seal of the United States. You can investigate historical issues by exploring records on juvenile delinquency, assassinations, or Watergate. Or you can solve a puzzle while exploring the challenges of digital records.

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Entering the Public Vaults is a journey of discovery. The records displayed there can be used by everyone to discover more about themselves, their families, and their Government. These records belong to all of us and help us understand the past, claim our rights, and hold our Government accountable. A trip through the Public Vaults will show you why records matter to you, your family, and your country.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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