One of the most important places to visit on any trip to Washington, DC is the National Archives Museum. Nothing compares to seeing the actual Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights up close. It is amazing to think of the men who signed these very documents and the revolution that they were starting and the government that they were creating. They had no idea how it would turn out, and I think they would be impressed that over 200 years later, these documents are still revered and venerated.
Advance tickets for the museum are a good idea, especially during the high tourist season from March-Labor Day. There are walk-up tickets available so if you are visiting outside of these months or weren’t able to get the advance tickets, drop by the entrance near the corner of Constitution and 9th Streets. I have visited both with and without tickets and you just never know how long the line will be. It’s definitely worth a try!
Once you go through security, you will be in the Orientation Plaza. There are several galleries on both floors to explore, along with the rotunda where the documents are displayed. I recommend going upstairs to the Boeing Learning Center first to pick up your gallery pack so your child can have some fun tools to explore the Archives. They will even get an archivist’s stack coat to wear! We didn’t know about this on our visit and I wish we had participated! You can also learn more about the specific children’s activities going on during your visit at this center as well as see child-friendly replicas of the founding documents.
Your first stop after the learning center should be the main attraction, the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. This room is grand in scale and contains the most important documents in our nation’s history. The guard will tell you when to enter and the flow of the line to see the documents.
As you’re waiting to see the documents, don’t miss gazing at the Faulkner murals above the documents. My son loved picking out Alexander Hamilton in the painting on the right! Before you go, look at this neat art installation that inserts some of the important women of the Revolution into this mural.
As you gaze upon these founding documents, it is a good time to talk to your child about what the words really mean. It is also fun to try to read the words, which are written in sometimes illegible script. I was surprised that some of the documents had faded quite a bit and that some of the famous signatures are hard to read. The U.S. Constitution seems the best preserved and contains the signatures of many important people from history, including Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and James Madison. My sons were amazed that this was the actual document that all of these distinguished men from history had signed.
As you leave the rotunda, don’t miss the East Rotunda Gallery that contains an ever-changing featured document. You will then want to head towards the back of the museum to the Public Vaults Exhibition, which takes you “into the stacks” of the National Archives and allows you to see rare footage and documents. It contains many hands-on activities for children, including my son’s favorite activity about spies in classified documents. We also enjoyed seeing the video footage of many Presidents as kids!
On our last visit, there was a kids’ learning desk outside the entrance to the exhibition that allowed kids to learn even more about the founding documents of our government. My sons enjoyed interacting with the staff member and playing trivia games. You can also ask the staff member about the “archivist for a day” program.
During our last visit, there was a featured exhibition, Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, which is especially timely with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. My sons loved the pretend voting booths where they could vote on what they considered to be the top issues facing America. Their favorite part of this exhibit was a racing game about women’s history.
Before heading back downstairs, visit the learning center again to drop off your gallery pack and to participate in the fun, hands-on activities in the resource center. Kids will love using white gloves and magnifying glasses to really get up close and personal with the replica documents!
There is one more gallery to see on the ground floor. The Rubenstein gallery contains the Record of Rights exhibition and displays an original Magna Carta that is over 700 years old! This exhibit contains many interactive exhibits centered on the rights of Americans throughout the centuries. My sons loved the large touchscreen timeline where they could learn more about the history of important topics such as voting rights and immigration.
Don’t forget to visit the wonderful National Archives Store before you leave for souvenirs and books. My son purchased replicas of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Unlike in one of his favorite movies, “National Treasure,” it only cost $12!
There is nothing like seeing the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence in person. This is one visit that your children will always remember!
- Cost: Free (reserved time tickets $1/ticket)
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 1.5 hours
- Gift shop onsite
- Transportation: Nearest Metro stop is Archives/Navy Memorial. A convenient nearby parking garage is at 601 Pennsylvania Ave NW.
- Dining options nearby include: Charters Cafe onsite. My favorite nearby restaurant is the Pavilion Cafe, located directly across the street in the lovely National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Other nearby options include Penn Quarter Sports Tavern, food court at the Reagan building, and the amazing Sweet Home Cafe in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
- Nearby attractions include: Smithsonian Museums: Museum of Natural History, American History, and African American History and Culture, National Gallery of Art, Newseum (closing soon!), Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (contains pieces of the Berlin Wall and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Memorial Exhibit), National Children’s Museum (opening soon!), and the White House Visitors Center
Books to Read (continually updated):
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
- What Is the Constitution?
- What Is the Declaration of Independence?
- We the Kids: The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
- Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution
- If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution
- A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution
- Capital Mysteries series
- Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
What is your child’s favorite founding document and whose signature were they most excited to see? Comment below!