Day 23: Preserving History, Literally

The National Archives. Photo: Jenny Williams

(This post is for July 12, 2011.)

Today was a really big day. Not only were we going to the two places in DC that I was most excited about, but we also had to move our stuff from Jess’s house to Jeff’s house, and find Jon B.’s house, at which to park for the Metro. Phew. And I wasn’t quite ready for my alarm to go off at 5am. But we made it out of the house, packed up the car, and drove to Jon’s house, only getting lost two or three times. We had a very nice but quick visit there, and then rushed off to the Metro. During rush hour. The advantage there is that the trains run all the time. You aren’t waiting long. The bad parts are the crowds and the much higher fares. It cost us over $30 in Metro fare, just for this one day. Boo. The ride to the Archives stop also took a solid 45 minutes, partly because we had to change trains, partly because the train stopped on the tracks a few times, because other trains were in the way.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo: Jenny Williams

Everyone on the Metro at rush hour looks depressed, or lost in thought. Almost no conversation, no smiles. Solitary figures going about their day, seemingly not happy about it. Staring into space, glum faces, only a little bit of texting. The ride was long, but probably too short for some of these folk.


Our first stop today was the National Archives. I think I went there once when I lived here, but I only have a vague memory of seeing the important documents. I think there was a line I wasn’t willing to wait in last time. But this time, I was totally willing to wait in a line. Fortunately, the line outside the Archives only took us 10-15 minutes to get through, and then we went through security, and got right in to the Rotunda to see the documents. The room was quite crowded, but since I didn’t want to rush through seeing them all, it was fine to move along the row of documents at a slow pace.

The Lunch Counter from the site of the famous sit-in. Photo: Jenny Williams

Note: I have no photos of the inside of any part of the Archives because they don’t allow any. Totally understandable. But for anyone interested in history or government, this is a must-see stop on your DC tour. You can’t see this kind of thing anywhere, unlike for many of the museums.

Other than the main documents, most of what you see in the Rotunda are facsimiles of original letters, documents, or proclamations. Not that you could tell. They were fantastically done. Each document is accompanied by an explanation of what you are seeing, and how it might tie in to what you already know. After several cases of those documents, with a couple of original ones thrown in for variety, you reach The Charters of Freedom, they call them. All of these were kept in special cases under special conditions. The lights in the Rotunda were low, and the cases were filled with a special gas and a certain amount of humidity. The first Charter of Freedom was The Declaration of Independence. The original parchment copy. The one you can’t really even read anymore. I’m not sure if the ink wasn’t a long lasting kind, but it’s practically illegible, except for the larger words. (There is also a stern looking guard standing by to make sure you don’t do anything wrong.) The second document was The Constitution. I’m not sure if they used different ink for this one, but it was much more legible. Seeing it written out, it was so much clearer how the founding fathers intended the government to be. Article 1 (the Legislative branch) is almost two parchment pages long. Article 2 (the Executive branch) is less than a page. Article 3 (the Judiciary branch) is even shorter. Then there are some other Articles after that. The third document was The Bill of Rights. For those of you not in the know, these are the first ten amendments to The Constitution, without which some states wouldn’t have ratified The Constitution itself. Of the original twelve amendments sent to the states for ratification, only these ten were passed (the other two were a bit out of place, so it’s okay). The ink on this document was also difficult to read. Then, after these main documents (and a more friendly security guard), there were more facsimiles of secondary documents and other things of note. Those were all really interesting to see as well.

Alan Shepard's Space Suit. Photo: Jenny Williams

There was something very moving to seeing the actual, physical documents that formed our country. I felt so connected to history and learned much. It re-inspired me to study history and government, not that I needed encouragement. Still, this history lover was in heaven. My daughter understood what she was seeing. My son did not.

After seeing The Charters of Freedom, we checked out a room that had some learning materials for students. The kids got to do a few activities, and I got more information on The Archives’ website for educational purposes. There is quite a lot there, if you go digging. Some I had already found, some I had not. I will be spending more time on the site in the future!

Next stop was a special exhibit at The Archives called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” It’s all about the government’s effect on food and our diet. Don’t think farm subsidies and genetically modified food. Think rations, the seven food groups (yes, seven – butter even has its own), and vitamin donuts! This exhibit was advertised all over town, which was helpful because I didn’t know about it in advance. I had already planned to go to The Archives on this trip, but knowing there was more than just our main governmental documents made it a higher priority.

John Quincy Adams's Chess Set. Photo: Jenny Williams

The Archives also had an extensive exhibit in the Public Vaults area about what The Archives does, and the kinds of things that are kept there. You could have spent much more time there than we did, but the kids had a limited attention span at that point.

Our last stop was the gift shop. I’ve enjoyed browsing the gift shops of all the museums and government buildings that we’ve toured. But the one for The Archives was the best yet. It was filled with things that interested me. I did buy a few things, including one book which almost recreated the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit. They even carried Rory’s Story Cubes!

Blackout Kit. Photo: Jenny Williams

From The Archives we walked to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which has always been my favorite museum of all time. I’m pretty sure The Archives is now my favorite DC stop. But the American History museum is still pretty good. But the weird thing was that it wasn’t as awesome as I remembered it. Maybe this is because the last time I came I was only just discovering my love of history, and now I’m a comparative expert, so it isn’t as much of a revelation to see the exhibits. Still, it was cool teaching the kids and realizing just how much I know.

There were a few exhibits that had “Please Touch” items for kids and others to put their hands on. I’ve learned that this is one of the boy’s favorite things to do. He likes hands-on things, not just looking and reading. I’ll have to remember this for homeschooling.

George Washington. Photo: Jenny Williams

We saw the usual there: The First Ladies’ gowns, Archie Bunker’s chair, the Muppets, Fonzie’s Jacket, and the Ruby Slippers. But we also saw plenty of things that weren’t there before (or I didn’t remember) such as Julia Child’s kitchen, lots and lots of presidential history and items, the history of coins in America, a special section on pop-up books, and really long exhibit on all of the wars in which we fought.

The museum had a few science areas that we skipped for time, because they looked like science museum exhibits. And we have done that quite a bit in recent years. The museum was also incredibly crowded, much more so than the Natural History museum was on a weekend. This detracted from my enjoyment a bit, and probably caused me to miss some interesting things.

Apolo Anton Ohno's famous skates. Photo: Jenny Williams

The Metro ride home in the afternoon was slightly shorter than the ride in, since we didn’t have to go as far. There was more conversation and fewer glum faces, but everyone was hot and cranky. For some reason, the heat was on in the Metro trains.

After riding the Metro a few times now, at different times of the week and of the day, I wonder – Are you a middle of the train person, or an end of the train person? The ends are usually less full, but require more walking. The middle is convenient but crowded.

I’m an end of the train person.

Drove: From Arlington to Fairfax by way of Vienna. Not far.

State (and a District!): Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Weather: Hot and miserable.

Kids: Dragging, but good.

Best Parts of the Day: The Archives. It was fantastic.

Worst Part of the Day: The crowds at the American History Museum.

Total GeekDads and GeekMoms Visited: 8.


About Jenny Bristol

Jenny Bristol is a lifelong geek who spends her time learning, writing, homeschooling her two wickedly smart kids, playing board games, and mastering the art of traveling on a shoestring.
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