This post originally published by Maarja Krusten at The Changing Archives Sky, October 5, 2016
The program I held in my hand in “the room where it happened” the evening of September 25, 2016 said “Records of Achievement.” On the stage of the McGowan Theater director Thomas Kail, lyricist, writer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda, and historian Ron Chernow talked archives and Hamilton.
For Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton was “the perfect musical theater character.” The strengths and weaknesses of a complex person made Hamilton so interesting in human and dramatic terms. Miranda laughingly said there was so much good historical material he only could use some of it, that the rest would make a couple more Hamilton musicals! And then he asked, who’s gonna do it?
Miranda described how the most fascinating archival materials about Hamilton were those that showed his contradictions. He saw in the Hamilton who is reflected in records and history his confidence at war with his insecurity. Instead of creating a traditionally heroic musical lead, Miranda sought to display Hamilton’s complex, imperfect character, with the contradictions on display, not whitewashed.
What became a hit Broadway show began as a possible concept album for Miranda. As Miranda and Thomas Kail (the son of archivist Wendy Kail) explained how they crafted Hamilton’s story theatrically, Ron Chernow said he could still see that concept album in the way the musical moved forward the story that he had told chronologically in his history book.
My guest for the evening Gala was a longtime cherished friend, historian-archivist Timothy Mulligan. A former employee of the National Archives, Tim has worked as a Volunteer on special projects at Archives 2 since retiring in January 2007.
NARA photographer Jeff Reed took the picture of us arriving at the Gala right before 6 p.m. on a beautiful early Fall day in Washington. As the sun set, special lighting made the red carpeted entry passage look magical. Both photos courtesy Jeff Reed, a wonderfully talented photographer!
Jeff kindly used my iPhone to take a second photo of Tim and me with AOTUS David S. Ferriero during the reception prior to the award ceremony. The setting is the renovated National Archives lobby that opened in 2013. The lobby entrance welcomes all who come to the museum side of NARA to see exhibits or attend public programs and workshops. I’ve attended some of the adult education workshops, including one on personal digital archiving with the fabulous Leslie Johnston of NARA.
The images on the screen behind us change. Since I know in person and admire David and support NARA’s vision, I was delighted to see the National Archives’ web site highlighted behind us at the particular moment Jeff took the picture!
That site, Archives.gov, is where so many of us now go to look for digitized records in NARA’s online catalog, information about public programs, and links to the agency’s increasingly robust Social Media presence. A reminder of how much has changed and how open the National Archives is now as compared to when I first started work as an archivist.
As did many National Archives’ employees, Tim began his archives career in the agency’s records declassification unit. So, too, did Pamela Wright, NARA’s Chief Innovation Officer. When Pam kindly stopped to say hello and introduce her daughter, Cait, we talked about Declass, where my late twin sister, Eva, was one of her early mentors. And about the way NARA now shares its holdings online.
Some of the declassified national security records released through NARA’s National Declassification Center and its predecessor unit now are accessible through the Office of Innovation’s work. You see the records in the public online catalog, in projects such as Docs Teach, and in the Social Media output of the Presidential Libraries and other archives units. I’ve also attended many fascinating public programs in the McGowan Theater that reflected research done in some of those records.
Eva, a supervisory archivist and team leader in Declass from 1983 until her death in 2002, would love seeing this sharing of knowledge at NARA and online. You see my twin sister on the job at Archives 2 and with me in a photo where I’m wearing the same blue jacket I wore to the Hamilton Gala. A 1980s NARA artifact!
Wait, Eva is cart skating in that photo that Tim took of her at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Is that really a picture of her “on the job?” Yes! As David Ferriero once said in writing about the workplace, there’s a place for fun among the hard work we do. And he practices what he preaches. David brought fun to the Records of Achievement Gala when he showed the great Hamilton socks he was wearing! And yes, during the Gala, I stopped in the Archives Store off of the Lobby, where you can buy those socks and other history and archives merchandise.
As I listened to Chernow, Miranda, and Kail talk about how they made Hamilton accessible to the public in the hip hop musical, I thought, “How appropriate that this conversation is taking place in the National Archives.” Because the behind the scenes work in units such as Declass, the efforts of the Chief Records Officer employees who work to preserve knowledge about government (“the room where it happens”), the project and reference archivists, the Innovation team, the Volunteers and Citizen Archivists, all has the same purpose. To make the history of government accessible.
By providing access to records, the National Archives makes the actions and thoughts of the people who wrote and received them available to citizens. NARA also hosts conferences and symposiums, many of which reflect thoughtful conversations about national history, civics, and government.
As with the insights in the best history books that draw on information in records from the Archives, the most thoughtful remarks at these public programs in the McGowan Theater reflect nuance, complexity, challenges, and, yes, conflicting elements. What Miranda said about Hamilton, about the contrasts in his character, is true for many other historical characters, as well. I especially appreciate efforts to show who they were as human beings, as Miranda dared to do with Hamilton, rather than as stock characters in civic theater.
My favorite quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “The Room Where It Happens” is “having opened doors that previously were closed.” In Hamilton, the line refers to negotiation over differences. But the phrase also describes the core work of the National Archives and Records Administration.
That mission is complex. (Many elements to balance, it isn’t always easy). And the work has many challenges! All the more reason to be grateful for those in National Archives facilities throughout the nation now working to preserve and make accessible the records that shed some light on what happened in the room. Especially those willing to dare! But also to those such as Eva who came before. And those who will follow!