Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Illegible Past: The National Archives

I had been all day in an office, and the cold had seeped into my bones. For the most part DC's museums are unkind to the city's population of nine-to-fivers.  Open during business hours, they debar anyone who's bound to the clock from sampling the city's cultural delights during the week.

The National Archives is an exception*, and in the time it took me to get from the office to the handsome square building just before the Mall, the summer heat had thawed me just enough to render the air conditioning a welcome respite.

There were no lines to get in. In high spring touring season I've seen lines stretch around the block as the schoolkids take their turns gawking at the US Constitution. Evening in late summer, however, meant I had the place as nearly to myself as anything ever gets on the museum circuit.  Getting in to the Archives is not tremendously straightforward - a side door lets you in past security to what appears to be a basement - but at least it's well signed.

Being a museum is, after all, not the primary purpose of the archives.  Perhaps aware of this, and perhaps seeking to defuse a reputation as boring or inaccessible, the Archives has poured its heart (and huge wads of cash) into the construction of its star exhibit: Discovering The Civil War. A full-length screen greets visitors with a pleasant young archivist stepping out of the stacks to offer tantalizing tastes of the stories on offer. It resembles nothing so much as an NPC one encounters in a video game, offering hints for the road ahead. "Two thirteenth amendments?" "A treason trial for resisting slavery?"

The exhibit itself is all walls - and no wonder, they need every inch of vertical space they can get. Titles, pull quotes, colored backgrounds (blue and grey make an appearance but do not dominate), blown-up photographs and a general high-budget design make the exhibit extremely visitor-friendly. Large imitation post-its ask questions about the documents on offer.  The Socratic method in a museum exhibit risks being twee, but the Archives pulls it off.  Its notes read like the questions of a good teacher.

Now if only the documents weren't so damn illegible! They are the stars of this exhibit, and there are some real doozies - John Brown's provisional constitution, Lee's resignation letter, both 13th amendments.  But the handwriting and occasionally the printing are so crabbed that I have to stare and sound out every word, a process that fills me with incoherent rage. In some place there are listening stations. Of all things to read, the declaration of secession?! It's printed! The readings from letters succeed rather better.  Like the photographs, the letters produce the familiar footsteps-on-the-grave frisson, that shudder of recognition that those who have been swallowed by time are as real and as whole as you.

The exhibit really shines in telling the lesser-known stories, like the petition from a group of Confederate women asking the Secretary of War to allow them to take up arms.  (He responds, rather snippily, "The men of the country it is to be hoped will suffice." My girl Sarah Emma Edmonds makes an appearance, as do the men of Christiana, indicted for treason for harboring fugitive slaves.

One of the most disarming sights of the whole exhibit was the stationary. I'm serious. The exhibit is very meta, celebrating archives and archival research equally with the period information it presents.  And without not only the content but the sight of these primary sources, how would I have known that the state of Alabama, after secession, couldn't be bothered to print new stationary? (An application for naturalization from a New Yorker appears on a form with word "UNITED" crossed out and "CONFEDERATE" written in).  Would I have quite grasped the deadly appropriateness of the fact that the Confederacy printed slaves on its money?

The exhibit is dotted with touch-screens, many of which make nods to modern means of organizing information.  Some succeed better than others (the quasi-facebook interface for tracking which officers had which relationships with others is unfortunately only confusing).  My favorite was the comic-book style recounting of the CSS Alabama's voyage, complete with spinnable globe that shows the ship's track to the other side of the world on its commerce-disrupting adventures.

This exhibit closed today, I'm afraid, so unless you want to head to Dearborn, MI in 2011 you won't be able to see it.  But part II opens in November, and not even the most illegible of letters will be enough to keep me away.

Place: The National Archives, O'Brien Gallery
Pros: Fiesta of primary sources, highly accessible format.
Cons: Can't read the damn writing.
Definitely Check Out: the crossed-out naturalization document.
Rank: 9/10 rough drafts


  1. The illegible letters killed me, too. Especially because the captions would ask such great leading questions that I *had* to read the documents to find out what they were talking about!

  2. Almost as good as going to the museum itself. And in this case, the only way I'd get to go!

  3. The exhibit did an excellent job in highlighting the causes of the war--most specifically, slavery--through its many documents. It is often the case that the people of the time were much more honest about the role of slavery than are their descendants.

    Another laudable aspect of the exhibit was its success in bringing the human element to the fore. We often forget that both the prominent figures and ordinary citizens of the day were real people much like us, who lived, loved, bled, and died. This exhibit helped us remember.