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Archives ‘Experience’ Grows

In addition to the yellowing original copies of our nation’s most important writings, the National Archives holds more than 6 billion pieces of paper, 11 million still pictures and the world’s largest collection of noncommercial film, more than 300,000 reels.

And with the grand opening earlier this month of the new William G. McGowan Theater, the National Archives and Records Administration gained a venue to bring those films to the public.

Screenings scheduled for October will display films featuring topics ranging from American Indian history to Dr. Seuss. In addition to films, the theater will host public and community programs. Approximately 300 such events and screenings will be held annually.

The theater is one feature of a larger project titled “the National Archives Experience.”

The Rotunda — home to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights since 1952 — closed for renovations in July 2001 for more than two years, reopening on Sept. 16, 2003.

Before the start of the renovations, the public side of the National Archives consisted primarily of the Rotunda, and behind it a circular gallery that “was really a hallway that we turned into exhibition space,” said Susan Cooper, director of public affairs for the archives.

The renovation stemmed from the need to restore and re-encase the three documents, known collectively as the Charters of Freedom. The restorations sparked a domino effect, Cooper said. Not only were the documents restored, but the Rotunda itself also was redesigned to improve the displays and make them more physically accessible.

“Part of our mission is to make materials available to the public,” Cooper said.

That mission inspired NARA to reconsider the public side of the building, developing plans for the theater, as well as a special exhibit gallery and the Public Vaults, where interactive features will allow visitors to explore the documented history of the United States. The Public Vaults will open Nov. 12.

Overall, the renovations will more than triple the exhibition space in the building.

During the day, an 18-minute film detailing the document restoration process will show in the McGowan Theater. In the evening, the 290-seat theater becomes one of the nation’s leading centers for documentary film.

Throughout this month, a 13-part PBS production detailing the lives of the Adams family has been showing in the theater. The final episodes of the 1975 series will show on Oct. 2 and 9.

Oct. 12 will feature two films produced in 1912 and 1914 by Thomas Edison for the American Red Cross. The films are among the earliest public health promotional films produced in the United States. The same day will honor the 100th anniversary of Edison’s patent for the motion picture film with select films from the National Archives’ film collection.

On Oct. 19, the theater will display a documentary highlighting American Indian history through the work of photographer Edward S. Curtis.

The final weekend of the month will feature a “Seuss and Sousa Family Weekend.” Marking the 100th birthday of Theodore Geisel, best known as children’s author Dr. Seuss, and the 150th birthday of American composer John Philip Sousa, the weekend will be dedicated to displaying the works and lives of both men.