Creating the Public Vaults of the National Archives

U.S. National Archives

The behind-the-scenes story of the creation of the National Archives' permanent exhibit space: the Public Vaults

In his address to the International Conference of the Round Table on Archives in Marseilles, France in 2002, ninth Archivist of the United States John W. Carlin described the Public Vaults as a way for visitors to feel as if “they are now inside the past and can glimpse the very heart of American government.”

In November of 2004, Carlin unveiled the latest addition to what, at the time, was referred to as the "National Archives Experience"—the Public Vaults, a permanent exhibit space behind the Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom.

Entering the new century, the National Archives wanted to create an exhibit that enhanced the visitors' experience and provided a glimpse into the documents, photographs, and other pieces of history that the Archives protects and preserves.


“For reasons of both security and preservation, the Charters of Freedom were going to have to be re-encased. When they went to come up with solutions, they ended up removing an entire floor of stacks from the Archives. They now had 14-foot spaces behind the Charters, and no concept of what would actually go in that new space.” – Marvin Pinkert, former Director of Museum Programs

What is now an integral part of the National Archives began not as a plan to build a museum. Rather, it was the result of the need for the National Archives to comply with building requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1989.

“I suggested to [Archivist] John [Carlin] that what we really wanted was an exhibit that dealt with the importance of records and why they matter. This became the theme of the exhibit very quickly. We decided that what we needed to do was create the experience of going into the stacks for a million people. Our goal was to have people visit not just the Charters but the National Archives.” - Marvin Pinkert, former Director of Museum Programs

When designing the exhibit, the team was challenged by the physical aspect of the space. Tthe National Archives Building, built in the 1930s, was designed to store historical documents and not meant to be a museum. In the design of the Public Vaults exhibit, however, the exhibits team used this obstacle to their advantage by tailoring the design of the Public Vaults around this reality.

“We were embarking on this renovation and we were going to have all this new space. It was pretty clear that we were going to have to do something that introduced people to what the Archives is. [Marvin Pinkert] had this idea that you come into this grand Rotunda, and you see the Charters. But this exhibit allows you to break through the wall. The vaults that nobody is allowed to see are now public.” - Ray Ruskin, Senior Exhibition Designer

From the necessity to make the National Archives Building more accessible came a drive to create a public space that complemented the Charters of Freedom. Starting in 2000, the museum team began planning and organizing this new space around the idea of giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look into how and why the Archives preserves records.


While designing, writing, and building the Public Vaults was hard work, a critical aspect of the team’s success was their ability to gain the adequate funding necessary to make such a massive exhibit project happen.

“I pressed the National Archives Foundation to manage the project. Now at the time the Foundation was an all-volunteer organization. They were a little concerned about taking on the project as they had raised a total of $100,000 in the first ten years of their existence and we were asking them to now raise $22 million in three years. I don’t think it was unreasonable for them to be reticent. It took some convincing.” – Marvin Pinkert, former Director of Museum Programs

Working with Pinkert and his team, the National Archives Foundation served as an integral part of the project's funding.

“I think we knew that the Rotunda and the Charters were going to always be the reason people came here.” – Ray Ruskin, Senior Exhibition Designer

While funding was a critical obstacle for the Public Vaults team, they were further challenged by the fact that the majority of visitors to the National Archives were coming just to view the Charters of Freedom. The team needed to give a reason for visitors to explore other areas of the museum.

“When I arrived, I looked at the situation and said, ‘Well what is the problem that we’re really trying to solve?’ And it seemed to me that, after several conversations with [Archivist] John [Carlin], the issue was that most people coming into the [National Archives] Building had no idea where they were. Secondly, for those who correctly identified the National Archives as its own government agency, when you asked them what the National Archives did they answered, ‘It protected the Constitution, the Declaration [of Independence], and Bill of Rights.’” – Marvin Pinkert, former Director of Museum Programs

By acknowledging that the Charters of Freedom would always be the main attraction, the exhibits team were able to focus their efforts on the idea that the Public Vaults would serve as an additional opportunity for visitor education and enrichment.

Rather than simply reinforcing the importance of the Charters, the Public Vaults give visitors insight into the world of archives and research that many people are not exposed to on a regular basis.

Developing the overarching theme of the Public Vaults, that records matter, was only one part in creating an exhibit. The other was its design. The team decided to orient the exhibit around the five components that make up the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

We the People—records of family and citizenship

To Form a More Perfect Union—records of liberty and law

Provide for the Common Defense—records of war and diplomacy

Promote the General Welfare—records of frontiers and firsts

To Ourselves and Our Posterity—keeping records for future

The museum team used the words of the Preamble as a means of enhancing the central message of the exhibit. By focusing on records associated with family, law, war, and social progress, the framework of the Public Vaults make records relatable to visitors and reinforce the message that records do, in fact, matter.


“[Archivist John Carlin] called together a group of museum-wise people in the summer of 2000 to get their opinion about this exhibit. He then went on a search for someone who would lead his museum team who was a bit more familiar with technologically advanced exhibits.” – Marvin Pinkert, former Director of Museum Programs

Marvin Pinkert worked for ten years as the vice president of programs at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois before coming to the National Archives. His experience facilitating more science and technology-oriented museums space provided him with the know-how to insert audio, video and interactive components into a history-oriented museum space.

“[The exhibit] was [created] before smartphones and gesture semantics for making things happen on screens. Marvin [Pinkert] was a science-minded, hands-on, experimental person. He really thought that there was a way to get into documents in a way that was more accessible through digital scanning and enlarging. It was pretty novel at the time.” – Ray Ruskin, Senior Exhibition Designer

From its inception, the Public Vaults exhibit was meant to be a state-of-the-art interactive space that using technology to allow visitors to engage with history in a meaningful way.

The forward-thinking approach of integrating digital technology not only gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look into the National Archives, but also attracts the attention of the youngest generation who have grown up having access to the latest technologies.

From the necessity to renovate the National Archives Building to allow for greater accessibility grew a desire by Archivist John Carlin and the museum team to enhance the experience of the more than one million visitors that come to the Archives each year.

The Public Vaults provides visitors a window into just how important the work of the National Archives is in preserving our nation's history.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Austin McManus with special thanks to Jeff Reed, Brogan Jackson, Jessie Kratz, Mary Ryan, Ray Ruskin, and Marvin Pinkert.

Visit the official website of the National Archives to learn more about the Public Vaults:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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