Last weekend I went to see “Spirited Republic,” a temporary exhibit at the National Archives about the history of alcohol in the United States. I’m interested in the history of food and knew the Archives would dig up some interesting materials. It was a worthwhile visit but ugh, right at the entrance is a sign declaring “no photography.” This isn’t unusual for temporary exhibits because they may contain materials that are protected by copyright or have objects on loan. In this exhibit, however, everything was drawn from the collections of the Archives or had fallen out of copyright. If I went around the building to the Research Room, I could retrieve any of the items on display and make photographs without question. Secondly, most of the items are historic governmental or administrative documents, which don’t encourage selfies or other distractions. Photographs would most likely be taken by people who were really interested in the subject and wanted an image for reference. If they’re worried about light damage, people can be warned not to take flash photos (and studies by conservators show that flash photography has to reach excessive levels to cause significant damage, so this is usually an unfounded concern). If they’re worried about security, everyone has already been screened in the usual DC way and guards are posted throughout the exhibit. Finally, photography is one of the only areas of creative activity that’s growing in the US (bucking the declines in sewing, painting, pottery, or music according to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the Archives has a rich trove of content for inspiration (and it helps publicize their exhibits and collections). The “no photography” makes absolutely no sense at the National Archives. Instead, the National Archives should assume that photography will be allowed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so. Just follow the same rules as in your Research Rooms.
Prohibitions on photography isn’t the only stumbling block to public access and historical interpretation at the National Archives–I’m sensing a growing use of reproductions and facsimiles. I understand the need to protect documents from light damage, but it’s really getting out of control. If anyone in the nation understands the human need to see the real thing, it should be the National Archives, who displays the original Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights in its hallowed Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom (and for an activity, instead of signing the Declaration of Independence, how about signing the US Constitution, which is far more relevant to our lives today?). Yet the first four documents in “Spirited Republic” are reproductions, clearly labeled “This is a facsimile” although displayed on mounts as if they were originals. Huh? (I would have provided a photo to show how ridiculous this looks, but I didn’t want to get thrown out by the guard.) This attitude goes to the extreme in the permanent Records of Rights exhibit, which “showcases original and facsimile National Archives documents.” Not only are most of the documents on display reproductions, but how do you showcase a facsimile? Really? Let’s rethink the value of authenticity–it lies not only in the intellectual content of the documents but also in the paper and ink, otherwise we might as well close the exhibits and just have virtual experiences (which would probably make some archivists do cartwheels with joy). Instead, the National Archives should assume that the real, authentic, and original will be displayed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so. We have to move away from the idea that a reproduction is a good as the original. If the original 1297 Magna Carta can be on display, so should the Voting Rights Act of 1965.