WASHINGTON -- From the first issue of Mad Magazine in 1952 to the 1955 police report on Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus to George Washington's handwritten 1789 list of nominations for the first Supreme Court, they define American history.
All are found in an appealingly eclectic new exhibit of "American Originals" on display at the National Archives. The pieces of the show were combed from the archives' little-known and rarely seen multibillion-artifact collection.
"The intent is to put out some of the most treasured items and to have it a varied enough selection so that everyone who comes will find at least one or two things that are of interest to them," said Stacey Bredhoff, the exhibit curator.
One such item is the warrant for the arrest of Wyatt Earp. The famous lawman and scourge of every cowboy with larceny in his heart was a wanted man himself in 1871 for stealing horses. Or novelist Edgar Allan Poe's 1831 court-martial papers from West Point. Or Susan B. Anthony's 1880 petition for the right to vote.
The exhibit puts flesh on history's dry and dusty bones. There is the momentous, such as the Lee Resolution, offered by Richard Henry Lee, Continental Congress delegate from Virginia, who on June 7, 1776, first proposed independence from Britain. "It isn't all that dramatic looking," Bredhoff said. "But it was a treasonable proposal, punishable by death. It's a major step in the American Revolution, and it's just this very innocent-looking resolution."
There also are the heart-breaking items, such as the photographs from around 1910 that document the widespread use of child labor. Asked her age by photographer Lewis W. Hine, a child, 51 inches tall and earning 48 cents a day in a North Carolina cotton mill, said, "I don't remember." Then she whispered, "I'm not old enough to work, but do just the same."
Most of the 1 million people who visit the National Archives every year come to see the Declaration of Independence. That's usually all they know about the place, just one of the many imposing, columned buildings that dot downtown Washington.
But there's more: 4 billion documents and other papers, 16 million photographs, 2.5 million maps, 2.5 million architectural drawings, plus thousands of films and recordings. And that's just in Washington. It doesn't take into account the holdings in other sites around the country and in nine presidential libraries.
The American Originals exhibit in the National Archives Rotunda turns history into a slow-moving train that allows visitors to get on and off where they like.
The shock of Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn can be glimpsed through the flurry of telegrams between the Army's adjutant general, who was on his way to Philadelphia in July 1876 for the nation's 100th birthday celebration, and Custer's commanding officer.
"We read newspaper reports of some terrible thing going on with Custer," the adjutant general wrote. "What is going on?"
Visitors also can experience the horror of the Holocaust by reading a page from the Mauthausen concentration camp's "Totenbuch," or death book. For each prisoner, there is an entry number, name, national or ethnic origin, date and place of birth, date and time of death and cause of death. Death was listed mostly as due to medical ailments, although a few prisoners were "shot while attempting to escape." Of 27 prisoners listed on the page, all but one were Jews.
About the exhibit
The "American Originals" exhibit at the National Archives in Washington will be on display through year-end; the exhibit is free. The Archives are open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.
Pub Date: 2/01/98