By Lacey Johnson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. National Archives Museum opened a civil rights gallery on Wednesday, with a 13th century copy of the Magna Carta accord, considered one of the founding documents of modern government, as its centerpiece.
The new 3,450-square-foot (320-square-meter) exhibition space, "Records of Rights," uses historic documents and visuals to chronicle civil rights struggles by blacks, women and immigrants.
The Archives Museum on the National Mall already houses the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. One of the U.S. capital's leading tourist attractions, the archives have about a million visitors a year.
Philanthropist David Rubenstein, co-chief executive and managing director of the asset management company Carlyle Group LP, donated $13.5 million to help pay for the project. The new gallery bears his name. The funds were also used to construct an adjacent visitors' plaza.
The new space includes petitions for women's suffrage and a compensation claim from a former slave, but its highlight is the Magna Carta. The 1215 English charter was the first to challenge the monarch's authority with a declaration of rights.
The Magna Carta was reissued in 1297, and the Archives' copy was one of four made that year. Rubenstein purchased the Magna Carta, which was previously owned by former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, for $21.3 million at auction in 2007.
"These documents really symbolize the great freedoms that we have in the Western world, but these documents were really giving rights and freedoms to people who were white and male and, generally, pretty wealthy," Rubenstein said in opening the new space.
In addition to original documents, videos and photographs, a 17-foot-long (5-meter-long) digital touch-screen table will allow visitors to browse more than 300 civil rights documents.
From conception through construction, the gallery and exhibition took more than two years to complete. The opening was delayed first by the government shutdown in October and then by the threat of snow on Tuesday.
"To see the Magna Carta was really, really so thrilling. I look forward to going back again," said Robin Jacobson of Bethesda, Maryland, who stumbled upon the new exhibition on a research trip to the Archives.
(Editing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Richard Chang)