Your little ones might not be ready for National Treasure — or even Night at the Museum. But kids ages 8-12 get the chance to get close and personal with some of this country’s most-prized artifacts at the twice-a-year Sleepover at the National Archives. Started in 2014, the Sleepover recently held their latest installment — and we were lucky enough to check it out. Spoiler: The Constitution doesn’t snore — but the Bill of Rights might be a teeth grinder.
Arriving, locals and families from around the country (Washington state, Idaho, Texas, Iowa, Alabama, Florida, New York, Connecticut all were in attendance) lined up eager with anticipation — sporting backpacks and sleeping bags. Upon entry, families were treated to an itinerary of hands-on education (this year’s theme was Native Americans), a scavenger hunt and free time on their own to explore the treasures in the Archives. The night ended with a program in which Martin Sensmeier, the lead actor in the upcoming production Bright Path: the Jim Thorpe Story, addressed participants on how he is preparing to play Jim Thorpe, iconic Native American athlete and Olympic gold medalist.
We had a chat with the executive director of the Archives Foundation, Patrick Madden, to shed some light on the origin and purpose of the event. Madden explained that the Archives has two missions. First, of course, is to protect the documents and artifacts of this country. The second is to make these treasures accessible to the public.
The sleepovers were developed to get the public, and children in particular, a chance to get an un-rushed and immersive experience with the Archives. To get kids thinking beyond “hey, that’s just a document”; they get a chance to understand the stories behind them, learn about the people that wrote them and how they connect to their lives (and government) today.
The highlight(s) of the evenings, according to Madden, are the scavenger hunts, lights out in the rotunda (at 11pm) and pancakes made by the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero himself in the morning.
As you would imagine, these sleepovers sell out — and quickly. But the next installment on Feb 2nd, 2019 (theme is Native Americans again) still has availability. They expect it to be booked up by November, so get on it now — plan your night, your trip. And for those coming from out of town, the price for you and a child will end up costing less than a night in DC hotel.
Other cool things we learned:
- Kids can write letters to the president at the archives (and did so during the sleepover), and those letters will end up being part of the presidential libraries, which are part of the Archives.
- There are over 16 billion documents as part of the National Archives.
- One of the most popular activities at the Archives is genealogy work. Families visit the facilities to take advantage of the documents (and professional help) to trace family history. And there’s even a genealogy camp! You can even visit during the week and there are people who can assist you for free.
- There are plenty of items beyond the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One that we thought was cool to hear about was the original patent for Monopoly. Almost exactly the same — but a cannon was once one of the game pieces!
- The most popular event at the Archives is the July 4th reading of the Declaration of Independence.