Who’s in the picture?

Lin-Manuel Miranda made daring creative choices as he gave voice to the characters in Hamilton who sing about time, perspective, written words, and loss of agency in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” After Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel,  Eliza Hamilton sings of her late husband, “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing.”  She also turns to those who once knew him.  And considers her own legacy.  

Miranda explained at an archives awards event in 2016 (my iPhone photo at right) why he didn’t make the central character a traditional hero. 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. For Miranda the most interesting archival materials about Hamilton were those that showed his contradictions.

Phil Darius Wallace gave a dramatic reading as Frederick Douglass of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” a year later on the same stage at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The actor’s July 3, 2017 declamation in the McGowan Theater included this passage from the speech Douglass gave in 1852:

The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Historical re-enactors who have studied their characters in the context of history (rather than its myths) make the past more vivid for listeners. Wallace (pictured below) answered questions from the audience based on immersion in biographical details. He placed Douglass’s strength, endurance, and belief in the future downfall of slavery in historical context. 

I’ve helped staff several of Wallace’s appearances at the National Archives.  After one I saw the actor standing on Constitution Avenue talking to people who had attended his performance as he waited for his ride. The wide range of topics and speakers in public programs I help staff keeps me engaged in my own work.  It also gives me new ways to look at the two professions in which I’ve spent my career, archivist, then historian.

On the same stage in Washington where Miranda talked about Hamilton and Wallace about Douglass, a scientist gave me a fresh perspective on historical research earlier this month. Prior to retirement, Dr. Lester Gorelic worked for the National Institutes of Health as a program director. Gorelic, whose academic degrees are in Chemistry, has been a Volunteer/Docent at the National Archives for nearly decade.  After doing research in archival records he became an expert on the two murals (Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution) that artist Barry Faulkner painted in the 1930s for the National Archives.

To a casual observer, the paintings placed in the Rotunda in 1936 may seem like traditional depictions of the Founders.  But there’s a sign of the future in one part of the sky.  And a continuation of the story one level below the Rotunda.   As with the murals, which have undergone expert conservation treatment, what we see and hear depends on the labor of others.

At the beginning of his presentation on the murals on July 2, 2019, Gorelic told listeners they would be hearing two types of information: factual and assembled. And that there would be a Q&A at the end of his talk where he would welcome audience feedback on what he had assembled in his research in records held by the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, NARA, and other repositories.

Because I’ve chatted with Lester in recent years about his work in government service and his interest in history, it was a joy for me to help staff his talk.  Hearing him refer at the start of his lecture to the “factual” and the “assembled,” then inviting audience feedback on the latter, was an “aha” moment.  It gave me useful insights into how a scientist looks at empiricism,  individual choices in the research process, and openness to hearing how others see the issues.

The Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero (with Lester in a photo I took as we chatted after the lecture), gave welcoming remarks.  David knows Lester’s contributions as a docent well–they started work at NARA on the same day! I didn’t meet Lester until 2017 when we worked together to staff an event.  His research resonates for many reasons but also teaches me some good lessons. I’ve done research in some of the same Record Groups (RG 66 and RG 121, Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the Public Buildings Service) as well as in RG 328 (the National Capital Planning Commission).

The men depicted in the paintings held differing views on suffrage, states’ rights, and the role of a central government.  The groupings in the murals suggest their varying geographic and philosophical affinities.   History doesn’t feel like history when you’re living through it, especially revolution.  None of the men depicted in the first mural knew whether the rebellion would succeed or fail when they signed the Declaration of Independence.  It took courage to sign a document which includes a detailed list of grievances against the ruler with authority over them, King George III.

The records Gorelic studied in RG 66 show that the Commissioners did not approve the first studies Faulkner produced. The members of the Commission of Fine Arts who worked with Chairman Charles Moore and Faulkner included Gilmore D. Clarke, Charles A. Coolidge, John M. Howells, Lee Lawrie, Eugene F. Savage, and Egerton Swartwout, “internationally recognized experts in architecture, art, and sculpture.”

You still can see Lee Lawrie’s own artistry in New York City (Atlas at Rockefeller Center) and in Washington (the bronze doors and the owl in the reading room of the Adams building of the Library of Congress). He also is the sculptor who created the two bas-reliefs that flank the G Street entrance to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), formerly the General Accounting Office.  GAO’s graphic artists later adapted the original (at left) for the agency’s publications to reflect the modern workforce, as here in 1991.

On April 25, 1952, The Evening Star described Lawrie’s bas-reliefs in an article that also gives present day readers a glimpse into the period in which the sculptor worked. In an article headlined, “Brief Case Boys Cut in Granite at New GAO Building Entrance,” the Star took note of one figure:

The brief case boys, familiar figures on the Washington scene, have been immortalized in sculpture. One of their number forms part of two sculptured panels flanking the south entrance on G street N.W. of the new General Accounting Office Building. Toting his brief case, he is carved in enduring granite. About 30 figures on the two panels symbolize the various activities of Government on which the GAO rides herd. The man with the brief case symbolizes the business activities of Government and Government’s relations with private business. He is not tagged, however. The observer, therefore, may write his own ticket. The man with the brief case may be regarded as an harassed businessman summoned before a congressional committee. Or a happy businessman with a government contract in the brief case. Or a Government official on his way to a policy-making huddle with other officials.

Records in the National Archives show “huddles” by planning officials and how Barry Faulkner worked to fulfill his government contract while advised by Lawrie and other commissioners.  And the internal debates among design and planning officials about how to link the newly established National Archives with the history it would preserve.  As with Lawrie’s sculpture, the observer is part of the picture, too, in the Rotunda, the surrounding museum spaces, and in the research room on the other side of the building.

Gorelic is scrupulous in reporting the results of his research on how Faulkner worked through those requirements.  He quotes CFA member Howells as noting during a meeting on Faulkner’s first studies, “There was nothing inspiring in the sketches.” Lester provides context for a statement which if used out of context could be seen as merely disparaging.

He notes that “Howells would later explain in a telegram to Moore that the absence of inspiration was primarily ‘due to the general heaviness of the whole interior and the acceptance of a constructed picture cut in two by a central motif or altar. I felt a certain bareness and poverty in the whole conception.’”

The commissioners understood the challenges the Rotunda space presented and discussed how the artist best could showcase his strengths.  Moore asked Faulkner to be more comprehensive.  He suggested that “one of the panels [should] be dedicated to the founders of the Republic and the other to Abraham Lincoln and his time.”  The artist took that to mean adding figures to his early drafts or “enlarging the scope of the study.” In one study he included Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln in the Declaration panel but deleted them in later studies.

The final version (1936) shows Lincoln’s profile in the shape of a cloud in the sky above Thomas Jefferson’s head in the Declaration panel.  Gorelic notes, “Lincoln becomes covertly integrated into the historic hypothesis of the composition through the slavery issue, an issue expounded in an early Jefferson draft of the Declaration.”

In subsequent years, the National Archives put up temporary exhibits in galleries near the Rotunda about later events, including the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement. A permanent exhibit, “Records of Rights,” opened in 2013 immediately below the Rotunda level in a new ground floor gallery.  It picks up the story of initiatives for women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and labor and employment protections.

In the decades since the National Archives began operations, historians who’ve used its archival holdings have come to its public spaces to discuss their work.  Annette Gordon-Reed (at left) on Thomas Jefferson.  David Blight on Frederick Douglass.   Eric Foner on Reconstruction.   J. Samuel Walker on working as a Federal historian.  Journalists, community activists, elected representatives, participants in events, also have shared their perspectives.

No two speakers I’ve heard at the events I’ve attended or help staff “assemble” their work exactly the same way.  Lester Gorelic tells us what is known about the Faulkner murals, uses conjecture sparingly–and then in a low key way–and is forthright in pointing to what isn’t or cannot be known.  A scientist and former government program manager, he focuses on providing context for past events, examining but not second guessing decision makers.  Readers and listeners have space to assess facts on their own.

The Archivist, David Ferriero, whom I know in person, admire and respect, explained NARA’s mission in an interview about “Remembering Vietnam:”

Eric Foner, in his book “Who Owns History,” writes, “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.” Our job at the National Archives is to ensure that the public has access to the information they need to do that job of rewriting history. As classified information is declassified, as presidential papers are reviewed and released, as records that have never been researched before are used, that story will continue to be rewritten.

That mission includes innovators and maintainers. Louis Simon, featured in the story of the Faulkner murals, studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He joined the Office of the Supervising Architect at the Department of Treasury in 1896, then became chief of the engineering division in 1915.  Simon oversaw construction of the Federal Triangle starting in 1933 when he became Supervising Architect of the Public Buildings Service.  Some of the Federal Triangle buildings, including the National Archives, are built over the low lying area where the Tiber Creek once flowed.  Groundwater and mitigating the chances of potential flooding remain issues for many buildings along the Mall.

A few days after Gorelic spoke, torrential rain (coming down at one point at a rate of 5 inches an hour), hit the Washington area.  Water came in to a basement control room in the National Archives through a seal around some cables, resulting in a brief electrical shutdown.  But the self-rising flood barriers I described in “Shipping and Receiving” worked as intended when installed in 2009.  The basement theater where Lester spoke didn’t flood.  And the historical holdings in the building stayed safe.

Facilities manager Tim Edwards, seen left in a picture I took in a conference room corridor at the National Archives in 2014, represents the “roll up your sleeves and deal with what happens” mentality I see up and down the ranks at NARA (right).  Many of my readers probably see it in the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums where they work, as well.  Innovators, maintainers, sometimes both at once.

Lin-Manuel Miranda writes in “The Room Where It Happens” about “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. And all who work to make accessible others’ voices. In state and municipal archives, historical societies, community archives, corporate archives, academic archives–both on stage and backstage.

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