Library of Congress

People visit the exhibit “Collecting Memories: Treasures from the Library of Congress,” during a media preview Monday in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Library of Congress is unveiling an eclectic new exhibit drawing on the institution’s vast historical archives and designed to make the Washington, D.C., library a more popular and accessible destination for visitors and tourists.

“Collecting Memories” – which opens to the public Thursday – is an intensely curated exhibit that brings together items as varied as ancient Hebrew religious texts, the contents of President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated in 1865, the first sketches of Spider-Man and videos of Carlos Santana in concert.

“These items are an expression of our collective history,” said Carla Hayden, the official librarian of Congress. “We want people to see themselves in our exhibit.”

The new exhibit is part of a campaign to make the Library of Congress more attractive to everyday tourists and school groups. David Rubenstein, a prominent local philanthropist who donated $10 million to the initiative, said the goal was to make the Library of Congress a regular part of tourist itineraries along with the monuments and various museums.

“You usually don’t go to the Library of Congress because you don’t know that the Library of Congress is more than just a library,” Rubinstein said.

Housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building, next door to the Supreme Court and across the street from the Capitol, the dimly lit exhibition hall bursts with images and antiquities. Slideshows play on the walls, while glass cases display vivid tapestries, ancient texts, photographs, and historical curiosities like former President James Madison’s crystal flute and Lincoln’s pocketknife and wallet – including a Confederate $5 bill. The life story of Omar Ibn Said, an African man abducted into American slavery, is told through his own autobiography, written in Arabic.


David Mandel, the library’s director of exhibits, said the goal was to leave visitors feeling “surrounded and immersed in the library’s collections.”

The exhibit will run for about 18 months, through the end of 2025. Some of the more delicate items on display will rotate out at six-month intervals to protect them from exposure. The 127 items on display are all drawn from the Library of Congress’ own internal collections, which number more than 178 million pieces.

At times, the selections seem almost random, but curators have embedded small connections and juxtapositions throughout – something Mandel described as the “synergies between the stories.”

An illustrated 15th-century Hebrew text sits next to a colorful Ethiopian religious book written in Amharic. Formerly top-secret photographs of the original Trinity test nuclear explosion are positioned next to a handwritten report by a Japanese survivor of the Hiroshima bombing describing the ordeal and aftermath.

A section focusing on refugee experiences combines photos of Syrian refugees arriving in Michigan in 2015 with a 1949 “affidavit of identity” belonging to famed Jewish historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt, who at the time was a German refugee in America and classified as a stateless person.

A multiscreen video wall plays a shifting mix of old videos ranging from home movies of everyday 1950s families to footage of Charlie Chaplin and clips of the Rockettes performing. Ancient Sumerian Cuneiform writing tablets – possibly the earliest examples of written language – share space with clips of D.C. native Duke Ellington performing while a Black dance troupe performs an acrobatic Lindy Hop.

“The stories told by these items still inspire and amaze, decades or even centuries after they were created,” Hayden said.

Visitors to the new exhibit must secure timed-entry passes, which are available for free at

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