WASHINGTON – The only copy of the Magna Carta in the United States is the centerpiece of a new museum gallery that opened Wednesday at the National Archives and traces the evolution of U.S. rights and freedoms for African-Americans, women and immigrants.
The archives opened its new "Records of Rights" exhibit in an expanded museum space on the National Mall after more than a year of construction to carve out more space for visitors and delays caused by the government shutdown. The Magna Carta is shown as the precursor to the freedoms envisioned in the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Magna Carta was the first English charter to directly challenge the monarchy's authority with a declaration of human rights. Noblemen came together in 1215 to declare their rights to King John.
The declaration was reissued in 1297 under King Edward I, and the copy now at the National Archives was one of four surviving copies made that year. There are 17 surviving original copies of Magna Carta, including 15 in Britain and one displayed at Australia's parliament.
Philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $13.5 million to fund the project and the Magna Carta's conservation. The new gallery was named for him. Congress also provided funds for the museum space.
Rubenstein bought the historic document at auction in 2007 for $21 million and sent it to the National Archives on a long-term loan. It was previously owned by Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Rubenstein said he wanted to keep the document from leaving the country.
"Now the archives has three of the most important documents in Western civilization: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the attached Bill of Rights and of course the Magna Carta," Rubenstein said. But he noted those documents pertained originally to wealthy white men.
On display with the Magna Carta are other documents, images, films and interactive displays showing the struggle to expand equal rights to women, immigrants and African-Americans.
One case will include a rotation of "landmark documents," and the first on display is the 14th Amendment, which grants equal protection under the law.
Other original documents on display include the discharge papers of a slave named Cato Greene who fought in the Revolutionary War to gain his freedom, immigrant census papers and case files, and documents about voting rights, property rights and financial rights for women.
"This puts the history of those debates on display," said curator Jennifer Johnson. In the future, the exhibit might also include items about rights for gays and lesbians or the disabled.
Rubenstein said he brings more visitors to tour the National Archives than any other place in Washington. He brought Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to see the Declaration of Independence and Constitution because they had never seen them before, "and they were mesmerized."
"I'm trying to do things that make people learn more about American history," he said, "because when you come and see the Declaration of Independence and you see the Constitution, you tend to think about it more."