The National Archives Experience (NAE) is an engaging family outing which will appeal especially to history buffs of all ages and strong readers. Younger patrons may be bored or may not have the historical context to appreciate what the NAE has to offer. That said, even preschoolers can identify iconic images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and with a little foundation-laying, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights can be given appropriate context.
On a beautiful Spring Saturday afternoon, the six-member Our Kids Team (ages 3 to 44) arrived at the visitor entrance on Constitution Avenue (there is a separate entrance for researchers on the opposite side of the building on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W). The line to get through security was brief, however when we left ninety minutes later, it was out the door nearly to the street edge.
While admission to the Archives is free, visitors planning a trip to the NAE are strongly advised to first check the website if they intend to visit the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in which the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights are housed. For a mere $1.50 online fee, visitors can make reservations which will allow them to skip the outer lines to the Rotunda which when we visited was estimated to take over an hour.
Given that three of our members were under age 10, the executive decision was made to skip the Charters of Freedom and instead focus on the two large Faulkner murals “The Constitution” and “The Declaration” which adorn the walls. Even the preschooler enjoyed picking out the images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the murals.
From the Rotunda, we followed the signs for the Discovering the Civil War, a temporary exhibit in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery which will be open until April 17, 2011. This exhibit was extensive and offered many interactive opportunities for each age group, such as lifting flaps to guess what preliminary sketches of certain inventions turned out to be (for example: submarines, a combination tent/sleeping bag, grenades).
The preschooler and kindergartner loved picking up the telephones to hear more on certain subjects, and watching the mini-films, even if the subject matter was not fully comprehended. Both the middle schooler and the fourth grader loved the reinforcement to their recent school units on the Civil War. Parents be advised, however, there are written details on injuries, and deaths, as well as graphic pictures of wounds and prosthetics which definitely engaged the older children and led to some pointed questions.
The team then meandered through the gift shop, and were impressed by the array of educational-but-fun toys and books which covered a wide range of price points range and generally seemed of good quality. It’s a good sign when you have four kids begging to buy the Constitution and Declaration of Independence so they can read them at home.
A highlight for the adults was the Public Vaults, a permanent exhibit in which visitors begin to appreciate the research and storage functions of the National Archives. The displays of storage files simply marked as transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials, Watergate, Investigation of the Challenger Crash and Unidentified Flying Objects give visitors a glimpse of what treasures might be documented in the building.
The younger members of the team were fascinated with the touch-screen maps which compared specific areas of cities such as San Francisco and Chicago of today with the same area over a century ago. The exhibit had the effect of having the middle schooler want to learn more about researching genealogy first online then in person at the Archives; again, a reinforcement to the 7th grade US history unit on immigration in the 20th century. The Public Vaults exhibit also sparked discussion on what challenges are presented to preserving and archiving information in today’s world as well as determining what information is worth saving.
The anti-climax of the visit was the team’s attempt to view the 11 minute introductory film in the William G. McGowan Theater, only to be told that the 3+ hour movie Dancing With Wolves was being shown instead. In addition, we were informed that the cafeteria was not open on the weekends (although there were vending machines available) which made for grumpy team members by the end of the visit).
The bathrooms were well-marked and updated. Our only other regret was after the initial line at the entrance, we were not aware of other reminders to call 202.357.6829 on our cell phone to get useful tips on visiting the Archives. We are not sure that families visiting the Archives would have the presence of mind to use a cell-phone guide at the time of the visit, other than while waiting in line, but it might be useful as a pre-visit planning tool.
We left the National Archives humming the We The People tune from the 1970s Schoolhouse Rock video shorts and look forward to renting the movie National Treasure (2004, starring Nicholas Cage). The older children are already planning their next trip without their siblings so that they can spend a little more time absorbing the content.
In short, the National Archives offered something for everyone: a sense of national pride and history, a promise as well as a means of research into self- and national- identity, cutting edge issues in technology and a firm grounding in the past. If online reservations are made to see the Rotunda, a family should anticipate spending between 2 and 2-1/2 hours for a first visit. Our Kids highly recommends the National Archives Experience for youth attending fourth grade and older.
Proof of a somewhat successful museum outing
- “I want to learn more”…. “Slow down, I want to read this.” (Our Kids Intern, 7th Grade)
- “That was pretty cool!” (Our Kids Intern, 4th Grade)
- “That was my favorite battle!” (Our Kids Intern, Kindergarten)
- “I’m hungry.” (Our Kids Intern, Preschool)