WASHINGTON - A privately owned copy of the Declaration of Independence begins a star-studded traveling exhibition today intended to increase civic activism among young Americans.
The copy, acquired a year ago by producer Norman Lear and three others for $8.14 million, will be on display around the nation through 2004, making stops at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and at every presidential library.
The exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Library has yet to be scheduled.
The traveling exhibition begins just as the original manuscript disappears into a preservation lab for three years. The National Archives will spend a year or so changing the worn glass encasements of the original Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.
The National Archives Rotunda, which houses the documents, will concurrently close for renovations. All of the work will cost $100 million.
''We're certainly delighted that Mr. Lear's document will be traveling around the country while ours is preserved,'' said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the archives.
A showman's showpiece
The original Declaration of Independence was handwritten, but after the Continental Congress approved it on July 4, 1776, the manuscript was typeset by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. Riders then dispatched roughly 200 copies throughout the colonies, where political and military leaders read them to the public. Lear's copy is one of only 25 that survive, and his is one of four in private hands.
Lear, who now is the document's sole owner, says that once he and his wife saw the copy at a Sotheby's auction last year, they knew instantly that displaying it throughout the country would be a way to rally Americans, particularly the country's youth.
''The moment is right for something to help this nation rejuvenate its traditions,'' he said.
Lear has brought his showman sensibilities and celebrity colleagues to his cause. Live theatrical shows and musical performances will accompany the exhibits. Today, the document is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where about a dozen actors will give it a dramatic reading to be televised on ABC. The A-list cast includes Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Rob Reiner.
''We're going to introduce the Declaration of Independence to more people through this than in its 225-year history combined,'' Reiner said.
In September, the road trip takes the Declaration of Independence to Ronald Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. After four months, it will be taken to Salt Lake City for the Olympics. The exhibit will travel to cities and towns throughout the country. The schedule will be announced next year.
AOL Time Warner Inc. has created a comprehensive Web site for the tour. Rapper Chuck D is writing a song about it. What's more, a six-member youth advisory board dubbed the ''Declaration Generation'' will schedule programming for the tour.
The `Declaration Generation'
One of the board's members is 24-year-old Roslindale resident Malia Lazu, director of Boston Vote, a nonprofit group that promotes voter participation.
''We are at the forefront of a new movement, a movement to form a Declaration Generation,'' she said with a grin. ''That is so awesome.''
With the Jefferson Memorial in the background, Lazu quoted the Declaration of Independence: ''We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal ...''
''When this document was written, it did not include me,'' Lazu said, explaining that her father is a black Puerto Rican and her mother is of Italian descent.
But, she continued, ''Through the civil rights movement and suffrage, this living document was transformed.''
Lazu said after her speech that she wants to see young people more engaged in America and its democratic processes.
Two blond 12-year-olds then approached her.
''Your speech was good,'' they told her.
''Really?'' she asked, beaming.
They nodded enthusiastically.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company