National Archives opens high-tech vaults

A new permanent exhibit that turns old documents into interactive computer stations opened today at the National Archives and Records Administration's building in Washington, D.C.

The 9,500-square-foot Public Vaults exhibit has more than 1,000 items, including about 25 computer workstations and 47 interactive screens. Visitors can navigate their own paths through behind-the-scenes historical stories using plasma screens, sound recordings and video stations.

The new arrangement livens up the previous series of exhibits. In the past, "you would've walked in, seen the Declaration of Independence and had little more than a religious experience," said John Carlin, archivist of the United States.

More than half of the documents have never been on display before.

To breathe life into the documents, one section features a scene from the film Glory, along with the documents upon which it was based.

The exhibit is divided into six sections. One section, the "Form A More Perfect Union" area addresses law and liberty and includes, among other things, an audio recording of Nixon's Smoking Gun tape.

The "We the People" sector features ordinary Americans and naturalization records of "ordinary" parents of extraordinary Americans. Its features include early sound recordings of a high-pitched Theodore Roosevelt and plasma screens showing home movies of a two-year-old George W. Bush.

One of the biggest challenges was creating visually different kiosks, without confusing passersby with new stimuli, said Julie Beeler, studio director of the exhibit's interactive media company, Second Story.

"We wanted each of them to feel unique, yet use the 'enhanced record viewer' [the interactive component] so that there was a consistent interface," Beeler said. "We didn't want visitors to relearn everything, yet we wanted it to be visually compelling."

The enhanced record viewer is an application that uses Macromedia Flash so visitors can zoom into and page through records. For example, the "Changing Landscapes" exhibit zooms in on satellite imagery and coordinates of Mt. St. Helens pre and post-eruption. "Becoming an American" introduces documents in a game format. With the "Investigations" exhibit, Second Story took film footage of the stacks and rendered that in 3-D, giving visitors an idea of what the actual vaults.

Because the exhibit is technologically based, Archives' officials say it can change with the evolution of new collections and the evolution of new ideas.

Patrick Gallagher, Principal of Gallagher & Associates, the project designer, said technology has brought interaction to the Archives, thereby increasing scholarship.

"Technology gives us the next layering that everyone is looking for in museums today," Gallagher said. "You had very traditional tools, very static tools, articles, graphics

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