The Times on the New National Archives “Records of Rights” Exhibit

December 17th, 2013

The good. They have Magna Carta!

You see the eerie yellow glow of a display case. And inside, written on thick vellum, with a threaded ribbon holding an ancient royal seal, is one of four surviving copies of the 1297 Magna Carta, a contract between English barons and their tyrannical king.

What a way to begin this exhibition while also foreshadowing prospects ahead! The document was purchased by the investor and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein in 2007 for $21.3 million; he provided it on permanent loan. He also donated a major portion of the $30 million required for the new entrance plaza, the new gallery we are entering, and the exhibition that opens with this document.

The bad. The exhibit offers no explanation or context for the documents.

A good part of this should be included in any history of the United States, but here, presented in isolation, without context or deeper analysis, the effect is numbing. We aren’t being asked to think: We are being drilled, unrelentingly, in injustice. When we are told, for example, about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its long-overdue promise, we are also informed that this year, “the Supreme Court declared Section 4 of the act unconstitutional.” There is no explanation either of that section or of the decision; the only point is to imply continuing wrongs.

Another example: The section on immigration makes you wonder why anybody bothered to come to the United States at all. The exhibition’s explanation is passive, even grudging, suggesting that war or persecution “pushed” some here; some were drawn by material prospects; and “for others the impetus was the promise of political of religious freedom.” The impression, over all, is that this remained just a promise, and that America, even now, is resistant to immigration. We don’t find contrary indicators like this: From 2001 to 2011 the number of immigrants legally admitted to the United States was greater than in any other comparable period in the nation’s history.

The exhibition notes that Americans have “debated issues” like these, but there is no debate — only compassion opposing intolerance. A more compelling approach might have been to explore how the idea of “rights” has changed. Or to compare American struggles with those of other nations. Or to see the nation’s profound virtues alongside its failings.

Magna Carta is this exhibition’s promissory note, in more ways than one; its gallery’s promise is also unfulfilled. What are we left with, as we head up to the Rotunda to see the founding documents? No context or perspective; only grim struggles and partially won liberties. What are we to think of Magna Carta, which no doubt accompanied a fair share of baronial tyranny? And what is a visiting class of students to think, except that the United States has been uniquely hypocritical and surpassingly unjust?

This is a peculiar way for an institution that is a reflection of the government itself, to see the nature of its origins, the character of its achievements, and the promise of its ideas.

Yikes. That’s pretty scathing for this law nerd.