Saturday, May 25, 2002

History told in document display

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — It was 1969 and America was intoxicated with the prospect of sending a man to the moon.

        Only no one was certain whether the risky Apollo 11 mission would succeed or whether the astronauts would return home.

        President Nixon prepared for the worst.

        “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

        “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

        So begin the eight paragraphs that speechwriter William Safire typed for Mr. Nixon should tragedy strike. It didn't, and the chilling statement was filed away.

        The two-page document is included in the National Archives and Records Administration's traveling exhibit, “American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives,” at the Ohio Historical Center. The exhibit opened Friday and runs through Sept. 2.

        The National Archives created the exhibit in 1995 to flank the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which were on permanent display in the Archives' rotunda.

        When the rotunda was closed for renovation last year, the National Archives decided to take the exhibit on the road for the first time.

        The tour, which began last fall, has stopped in New York and Chicago. The exhibit also will be displayed in Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., San Antonio, Los Angeles and Hartford, Conn., before returning to Washington next year when the renovations are complete.

        For the exhibit, archivists gleaned 25 compelling records from the National Archives' collection of more than 4 billion pieces of paper.

        They highlight stunning achievements, such as Thomas Edison's patent application for the electric lamp in 1879, to more challenging events, such as Virginia's Ordinance of Secession in which it withdrew from the Union in 1861 and joined the Confederacy.

        “People can see the documents, but also learn — sometimes for the first time — the stories behind them,” said Rachel Tooker, deputy director and chief operating officer of the Ohio Historical Society. “They sort of pull at the heart strings.”

        Text panels on royal blue walls in a small, dimly lighted gallery explain the origins of the documents, which are in wood-and-glass display cases.

        The simplicity keeps the focus on the documents. Seeing them can bring tears to the eyes or a lump in the throat.

        Seven documents are the core: the voting record of the Constitutional Convention, 1787; the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, 1803; the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, 1862; Edison's patent application; the German military surrender at the end of World War II, 1945; and President Kennedy's draft for his inaugural address, 1961.

        The seventh is the original Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln. It is displayed for four days only — in Columbus on June 20-23 — because it is so fragile.

        The other documents are tailored to the region.

        The 1884 Deed of the Gift of the Statue of Liberty, with its colorful ornate drawings and carefully scripted writing, was shown at the New York Public Library last October. Lady Liberty was a gift from France to America.

        In Chicago, a notebook was displayed documenting a 1942 experiment conducted at the University of Chicago as part of the government's secret Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. In a corner of Page 28 of the notebook, the exclamation “We're cookin!” was written when the experiment was a success.

        Columbus' centerpieces include the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established Ohio as a state and expanded the nation's territory west to the Mississippi River, an 1801 head count of the people living in Ohio, and a 1969 letter from Mr. Armstrong, an Ohio native, inviting Mr. Nixon to dinner on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch.

        “We're hoping people come from all over the Midwest to see the original records that created their states,” Ms. Tooker said.

        Stacey Bredhoff, the National Archives' curator of American Originals, calls the documents “the raw stuff of history” and said they “provide physical links to the past.”

        “One thing that is clear as you look at the exhibit as a whole, what they tell you is who we are as a people, as a nation, and how we got here,” she said.

        Themes of liberty and justice, America's cornerstones, are woven throughout the exhibit, from a flier announcing Martin Luther King Jr.'s last demonstration, the March for Justice and Jobs, in 1968, to a print of the Declaration of Independence from the national bicentennial in 1976.

        Other documents show the nation's darker times, including the 1872 order to the U.S. marshal to arrest Susan B. Anthony in Rochester, N.Y., for voting. Women were barred from voting until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was adopted.

        The exhibit helps humanize America's historical heroes, showing Mr. Kennedy's illegible scribbling in which he writes, then crosses out, then rewrites his inaugural speech on yellow legal-pad paper.

        Decades after history was written, the documents provide context for better understanding the nation's milestones.

        “We remember the moon walk as a great time, and it was. But this reminds us of the other side of the story — when nobody knew how it was going to turn out, and the risk involved,” Ms. Bredhoff said.


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