The focal point of the National Archives Experience – and the reason (most) people stood in long lines to be there in the first place – is the rotunda in which the three ‘Charters of Freedom’ are displayed: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You start with a film. Such films (the one at the Capitol is similar) serve as orientation. They frame the expectations for how visitors will/should engage with the exhibitions that follow.
The need to extoll the virtues of national pride and those of record preservation made for an uneasy mix in the National Archives. The film led with the former. So we get the pitch about being defined as a people by a shared history, smoothing over divisions still being played out today.
Just when the claims being made for history were becoming a little too much to take (no historians were interviewed/harmed in the making of this commercial…), the film switches tone. We then get brief insights into the potential roles for records in public life: holding political representatives to account, for example being one that seems to reflect the distinctive characteristics of the US system.
These roles are explored further in the (queue-free) permanent exhibit of the Public Vaults. The exhibit is structured into themes using from words in the Preamble to the Constitution:
- 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
- To Ourselves and Our Posterity – keeping records for future
In a sense, this approach invites us to extend our thinking. So, rather than venerate a document in and of itself, we are asked to consider its ‘life’: the meanings, implications and applications of its constituent ideas, and how these may change over time. As Jill Lepore has pointed out in her book on the Tea Party, this ‘life in history’ is particularly problematic in the US:
‘…because of the nature of the Constitution, the founding bears a particular burden: it is a story about what binds Americans together – We the people, do ordain – but it also serves as the final source of political authority, the ultimate arbiter of every argument, the last court of appeal. No history can easily or always bear that weight.’ (p. 47)
So the Archives exhibit seems to me to be attempting something rather important. It’s making the connection between foundational documents – which readily capture the imagination and attention, and can easily be taken ‘out of time’ to serve (divergent) ideological purposes – with their historical ‘lives’, and both with the roles of history in public more broadly.
Having said all that, I did find myself being drawn in by the pitch for a historically-rooted national identity. My American ‘half’ is a growing interest after many years of relative indifference. And I can feel how compelling the narratives of foundation and national identity are. It’s rather too easy just to dismiss the latter, to point out the abuses and elisions of history as if no further argument were necessary. But that would surely be just as ahistorical as seeing the Charters of Freedom as timeless, definitive authorities.
Perhaps we need to think seriously about why ideas of nationhood and national identity remain resonant in a time when national borders seem less stable or relevant. Perhaps there is a role for stories and myth-making, and for these to be accommodated alongside, and in dialogue with, more critical and sceptical approaches to the past. Perhaps national archives are the institutions at which this, highly challenging, historical task can begin.