News & Politics

A First Look Inside the New Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives (Photos)

It houses the Magna Carta and a “Records of Rights” exhibition.

Looking into the entrance of the David M. Rubenstein Gallery. In the center is the Magna Carta, which Rubenstein has loaned to the National Archives for permanent exhibition. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Billionaire financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein on Thursday is scheduled to get his first look at the completed National Archives gallery that bears his name, thanks to his $13.5 million contribution, and which will house the copy of the Magna Carta he bought at auction in 2007 for $21.3 million.

The overall project, also funded by the Foundation for the National Archives, included conservation work on the seven-century-old document—the last privately owned copy—and the construction of a new visitor center. In addition to the Magna Carta, the new, boutique-size gallery also has a “Records of Rights” exhibition that traces how the founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—evolved in issues such as citizenship, free speech, voting rights, and equal opportunity.

The new Rubenstein Gallery will open to the public for the first time on Tuesday, December 10, and Washingtonian got an exclusive first look with curator Jennifer Johnson. While we walked around, workers were busy applying the finishing touches.

The ancient document has been surrounded by utterly modern graphic arts and influences of social media. At a 17-foot touchscreen table, with room for a small crowd, visitors become “citizen curators,” said Johnson, by picking a historic document and following its thread as it spawns laws and shapes society. They can even comment on whether they agree or disagree with the issues. Archives officials expect it to be popular with teachers and school groups. The table is so high-tech it has its own control room.

The mandate of the gallery was to give a home to the Magna Carta. After that, Johnson said, “we had free rein to frame an exhibit, and we decided we wanted to get to know the story that we start in the Rotunda,” which is where the founding documents are on permanent display.

In an official statement, the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, publicly thanked Rubenstein for his “tremendous generosity.” He said it enables the Archives to strengthen and deepen its ability to share the American legacy, “whether the 15th Amendment, which granted African-American men the right to vote, or the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, which ensures equal pay for women.”