Early-American documents depict museum’s founding spirit

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 114 views 

BENTONVILLE — The first printed copy of the “Declaration of Independence,” printed on America’s birthdate, is on loan to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art from single private collector for a one-time showing.

The temporary exhibition Declaration: Birth of America, open to the public June 30-Sept. 17, also includes two printed newspaper accounts from 1776, a hand-written letter from King George III to his generals, a printed edition of the Virginia Bill of Rights, an American broadside description of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Franklin printing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities between England and the United States of America.

The media got a preview of the documents on display Thursday (June 28), and the papers will be available to members only from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday (June 29) and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. before the exhibit opens to the public on Saturday (June 30).

David Houston, director of curatorial at Crystal Bridges, brought to mind the gravity of the actions caused by the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the other rare early-American papers. “This is a remarkable opportunity to those these authentic founding documents,” he said.

“They’re a great thing for us to have in this, our inaugural year,” Houston said, with the opening theme of “Celebrating the American Spirit.”

“In the room, you really feel the authenticity,” he said. “It’s a really small footprint with a really big impact.”

On the evening of July 4, 1776, the text of the newly penned "Declaration of Independence" was typeset in the Philadelphia printing shop of John Dunlap and 200 large-format “broadside” copies were printed. These were rapidly distributed throughout the colonies to inform them of their new independence. Though it is not the famous hand-written version of the Declaration, and beared no signatures, the Dunlap Broadside was, in fact, the first published Declaration of Independence to be distributed to the colonies. The “official” handwritten document, which is on permanent view in the National Archives in Washington D.C., was probably not signed until August, 1776, Houston said.

“The broadside was like the radio or internet of its time,” said Houston, director of curatorial at Crystal Bridges. “It was the fastest, most technologically advanced method available of disseminating information during colonial times. Broadsides were sent to each of the colonies, and read aloud in public along the way for everyone to hear. It was the closest thing they had to mass communication.
“So  it was a revolution in a lot of ways,” Houston explained. "It was a political revolution, but it was also a revolution declaring that we as people have innate rights. And we can stand up to our government and claim those rights."

No additional ticket need be purchased to see the documents. The space is so small that admission is limited to a first come, first-see basis.

To make the documents available to the public come at a great risk to the documents. They’s set up the exhibition in a room with a single  that allows only indirect, no direct lighting into the room when the door is opened.