National Archives and Records Administration

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is an independent agency of the United States government charged with the preservation and documentation of government and historical records. It is also tasked with increasing public access to those documents which make up the National Archive.[6] NARA is officially responsible for maintaining and publishing the legally authentic and authoritative copies of acts of Congress, presidential directives, and federal regulations. NARA also transmits votes of the Electoral College to Congress.[7]

National Archives and Records Administration
Seal of the United States National Archives and Records Administration
NARA Logo created 2010
National Archives logo
Agency overview
FormedJune 19, 1934
(Independent Agency April 1, 1985)[1]
Preceding agency
  • National Archives and Records Service (GSA)
JurisdictionU.S. Federal Government
HeadquartersNational Archives Building
700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C., U.S.
Employees3,112 (2014)[2]
Annual budget$391 million (FY 2012)[3]
Agency executives
Child agency


The Archivist of the United States is the chief official overseeing the operation of the National Archives and Records Administration. The Archivist not only maintains the official documentation of the passage of amendments to the U.S. Constitution by state legislatures, but has the authority to declare when the constitutional threshold for passage has been reached, and therefore when an act has become an amendment.

The Office of the Federal Register publishes the Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, and United States Statutes at Large, among others. It also administers the Electoral College.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC)—the agency's grant-making arm—awards funds to state and local governments, public and private archives, colleges and universities, and other nonprofit organizations to preserve and publish historical records. Since 1964, the NHPRC has awarded some 4,500 grants.

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) resource for the public and the government. Congress has charged NARA with reviewing FOIA policies, procedures and compliance of Federal agencies and to recommend changes to FOIA. NARA's mission also includes resolving FOIA disputes between Federal agencies and requesters.


Rotunda of the National Archives Building

Originally, each branch and agency of the U.S. government was responsible for maintaining its own documents, which often resulted in the loss and destruction of records. Congress created the National Archives Establishment in 1934 to centralize federal record keeping, with the Archivist of the United States serving as chief administrator. R.D.W. Connor was chosen to be the first leader of the organization.[8]

After a recommendation by the first Hoover Commission in 1949 the National Archives was placed within the newly formed General Services Administration (GSA). NARA was officially given its independence from the GSA with the passing of the Records Administration Act of 1984, thus giving birth to the institution we have today.[9]

In December of 1978 millions of feet of news reels were destroyed in a fire at an offsite location in Suitland, Maryland.[10] The reels, made of exceptionally flammable nitrate material, had been donated previously by Universal Pictures and were stored in special vaults to protect against fires. In total over 12.6 million feet of reels were destroyed.[10]

In March 2006, it was revealed by the Archivist of the United States in a public hearing that a memorandum of understanding between NARA and various government agencies existed to "reclassify", i.e., withdraw from public access, certain documents in the name of national security, and to do so in a manner such that researchers would not be likely to discover the process (the U.S. reclassification program).[11] An audit indicated that more than one third withdrawn since 1999 did not contain sensitive information.[12] The program was originally scheduled to end in 2007.

In 2010, Executive Order 13526 created the National Declassification Center[13] to coordinate declassification practices across agencies, provide secure document services to other agencies, and review records in NARA custody for declassification.

The National Archives found itself under public scrutiny when it initially agreed, in 2017, to requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to allow certain documents be scheduled for destruction.[14]


NARA's holdings are classed into "record groups" reflecting the governmental department or agency from which they originated. Records include paper documents, microfilm, still pictures, motion pictures, and electronic media.

Archival descriptions of the permanent holdings of the federal government in the custody of NARA are stored in the National Archives Catalog.[15] The archival descriptions include information on traditional paper holdings, electronic records, and artifacts.[16] As of December 2012, the catalog consisted of about 10 billion logical data records describing 527,000 artifacts and encompassing 81% of NARA's records.[17] There are also 922,000 digital copies of already digitized materials.[17]

Most records at NARA are in the public domain, as works of the federal government are excluded from copyright protection. However, records from other sources may still be protected by copyright or donor agreements.[18] Executive Order 13526 directs originating agencies to declassify documents if possible before shipment to NARA for long-term storage,[19] but NARA also stores some classified documents until they can be declassified. Its Information Security Oversight Office monitors and sets policy for the U.S. government's security classification system.

Many of NARA's most requested records are frequently used for genealogy research. This includes census records from 1790 to 1940, ships' passenger lists, and naturalization records.

Archival Recovery Teams

Archival Recovery Teams investigate the theft of records.[20]

Facilities and exhibition spaces

The most well known facility of the National Archives and Records Administration is the National Archives Building (informally known as "Archives I"), located north of the National Mall on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.. A sister facility, known as the National Archives at College Park ("Archives II") was opened 1994 near the University of Maryland, College Park. The Washington National Records Center (WNRC), also located in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, is a large warehouse facility where federal records that are still under the control of the creating agency are stored. Federal government agencies pay a yearly fee for storage at the facility. In accordance with federal records schedules, documents at WNRC are transferred to the legal custody of the National Archives after a certain time; this usually involves a relocation of the records to College Park. Temporary records at WNRC are either retained for a fee or destroyed after retention times have elapsed. WNRC also offers research services and maintains a small research room.

Across the United States, the National Archives maintains both research facilities and additional federal records centers (FRCs). In many cases, the research rooms of regional archives are located at the same site as the federal records center, which are inaccessible to the public.

In April of 2019 an unknown person set fire to an exterior wall of the archives building using a homemade incendiary device before firefighters were able to extinguish the flames.[21]

Public–private partnerships

In an effort to make its holdings more widely available and more easily accessible, the National Archives began entering into public–private partnerships in 2006. A joint venture with Google will digitize and offer NARA video online. When announcing the agreement, Archivist Allen Weinstein said that this pilot program is

"... an important step for the National Archives to achieve its goal of becoming an archive without walls. Our new strategic plan emphasizes the importance of providing access to records anytime, anywhere. This is one of many initiatives that we are launching to make our goal a reality. For the first time, the public will be able to view this collection of rare and unusual films on the Internet."[22]

On January 10, 2007, the National Archives and (formerly Footnote)[23] launched a pilot project to digitize historic documents from the National Archives holdings. Allen Weinstein explained that this partnership would "allow much greater access to approximately 4.5 million pages of important documents that are currently available only in their original format or on microfilm" and "would also enhance NARA's efforts to preserve its original records."[24]

In July 2007, the National Archives announced it would make copies of its collection of Universal Newsreels from 1929 to 1967 available for purchase through CreateSpace, an subsidiary. During the announcement, Weinstein noted that the agreement would "... reap major benefits for the public-at-large and for the National Archives." Adding, "While the public can come to our College Park, Maryland, research room to view films and even copy them at no charge, this new program will make our holdings much more accessible to millions of people who cannot travel to the Washington, D.C. area." The agreement also calls for CreateSpace partnership to provide the National Archives with digital reference and preservation copies of the films as part of NARA's preservation program.[25]

In May 2008, the National Archives announced a five-year agreement to digitize selected records including the complete U.S. Federal Census Collection, 1790–1930, passenger lists from 1820 to 1960 and World War I and World War II draft registration cards.[26] The partnership agreement allows for exclusive use of the digitized records by for a 5-year embargo period whereupon the digital records will be turned over to the National Archives.[27]

Social media

The National Archives currently utilizes social media and Web 2.0 technologies in an attempt to communicate better with the public.[28]

On June 18, 2009, the National Archives announced the launching of a YouTube channel "to showcase popular archived films, inform the public about upcoming events around the country, and bring National Archives exhibits to the people."[29] Also in 2009, the National Archives launched a Flickr photostream to share portions of its photographic holdings with the general public.[30] A new teaching-with-documents Web site premiered in 2010 and was developed by the education team. The site[31] features 3,000 documents, images, and recordings from the holdings of the Archives. It also features lesson plans and tools for creating new classroom activities and lessons.

In 2011, the National Archives initiated a WikiProject on the English Wikipedia to expand collaboration in making its holdings widely available through Wikimedia.

Notable crimes

  • In 1963, Robert Bradford Murphy and his wife, Elizabeth Irene Murphy were arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for stealing documents from several federal depositories, including the National Archives.[32]
  • In 1987, Charles Merrill Mount was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for stealing 400 documents from the National Archives[33].
  • In 2002, Shawn Aubitz pleaded guilty to stealing dozens of documents and photographs from the National Archives during the 90's[34].
  • In 2005, Sandy Berger was charged with an unauthorized removal of documents from the National Archives; sentenced to 100 hours of community service and fined $50,000.
  • In 2005, Howard Harner was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000 after stealing 100 documents from the National Archives.[35]
  • In 2006, Denning McTague was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined $3,000 after stealing 164 documents from the National Archives.[36]
  • In 2011, Leslie Waffen was sentenced to 18 months in prison after stealing 955 recordings from the National Archives.[37]
  • In 2011, Thomas Lowry was permanently banned from the National Archives after he confessed to altering the date on a presidential pardon signed by Abraham Lincoln.[38]
  • In 2011, Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff were arrested and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for stealing ten thousand documents from the National Archives.[39][40]
  • In 2018, Antonin DeHays was arrested for multiple thefts of military artifacts and records from the National Archive during the mid to late 2010s.[41]

See also


  1. ^ "Archival Milestones". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  2. ^ "U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Fiscal Year 2014–2018 Strategic Plan" (PDF). National Archives. March 2014. p. 18. Retrieved May 10, 2017.
  3. ^ Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Request
  4. ^ "David Ferriero Confirmed by U.S. Senate as 10th Archivist of the United States" (Press release). National Archives and Records Administration. November 6, 2008. Retrieved November 10, 2009.
  5. ^ "Meet our Senior Staff". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
  6. ^ Mengel, David (May 2007). "Access to United States Government Records at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration" (PDF). Society of American Archivists.
  7. ^ "Elections and the Electoral College". National Archives. March 15, 2017. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  8. ^ Quigley, Sarah (2007). "Cultural Record Keepers". Libraries & the Cultural Record. 42: 81. doi:10.1353/lac.2007.0017.
  9. ^ Bradsher, G (2015). "National Archives Independence 30 Years Ago". Federalist (Society for History in the Federal Government). 45: 4–5 – via EBSCOHost.
  10. ^ a b Daley, Jason. "Forty Years Ago, 12.6 Million Feet of History Went Up in Smoke". Smithsonian. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
  11. ^ "Secret Agreement Reveals Covert Program to Hide Reclassification from Public". National Security Archive. April 11, 2006. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  12. ^ Scott Shane (April 27, 2006). "National Archives Says Records Were Wrongly Classified".
  13. ^ "National Archives and Declassification". October 19, 2011. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  14. ^ Peet, Lisa. "NARA Responds to Controversial ICE Records Destruction Request". The Library Journal. Retrieved April 19, 2019.
  15. ^ NARA. "The National Archives Catalog". Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  16. ^ NARA. "Open Government at the National Archives". Retrieved December 13, 2012.
  17. ^ a b NARA. "About Archival Research Catalog (ARC)". Retrieved December 13, 2012.
  18. ^ Section 3.2 (d)
  19. ^ Faye Fiore (August 8, 2010). "Guardians of the nation's attic". Los Angeles Times.
  20. ^ Katz, Brigit. "Authorities Are Looking for the Suspect Who Started a Fire at the National Archives". Smithsonian. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
  21. ^ "National Archives and Google Launch Pilot Project to Digitize and Offer Historic Films Online" (Press release). February 24, 2006. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  22. ^ "". Retrieved November 23, 2011.
  23. ^ "National Archives and Footnote Launch Project to Digitize Historic Documents" (Press release). January 10, 2007. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  24. ^ "Thousands of National Archives Films to Be Made Available Through CustomFlix Labs" (Press release). July 27, 2007. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  25. ^ "National Archives Announces Digitizing Agreement with The Generations Network" (Press release). May 20, 2008. Retrieved March 17, 2015.
  26. ^ "NARA The Generations Network Digitization Agreement" (PDF).
  27. ^ "Social Media and Web 2.0 at the National Archives". Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  28. ^ "National Archives Launches YouTube Channel" (Press release). June 18, 2009. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  29. ^ "National Archives Photos on Flickr: FAQs". Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  30. ^ "DocsTeach".
  31. ^ United States of America, Plaintiff-appellee, v. Robert Bradford Murphy, A/k/a Samuel George Matz, and Elizabeth Irene Murphy, aka Elizabeth Irene Matz, Defendants and Appellants, 413 F.2d 1129 (6th Cir. 1969)
  32. ^ Churchville, V., & Saperstein, S. (1987, August 16). THE FALL FROM GRACE OF AN ARTIST, AUTHOR. The Washington Post.
  33. ^ "Man Admits Theft From U.S. Archives". Los Angeles Times. March 14, 2002. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved April 19, 2019.
  34. ^ Carol D. Leonnig. Archives Thief Gets Two Years, The Washington Post, May 27, 2005.
  35. ^ Eve Conant. To Catch a Thief at the National Archives, Newsweek, May 4, 2007.
  36. ^ Erica W. Morrison. Leslie Waffen, ex-Archives worker, sentenced for stealing, selling recordings, The Washington Post, May 3, 2012
  37. ^ National Archives Discovers Date Change on Lincoln Record, NARA Press Release
  38. ^ Barry Landau Sentenced to 7 Years for Thefts From National Archives, Other Institutions, NARA Press Release
  39. ^ Notable Thefts From The National Archives, The National Archives Official Website (Archived)
  40. ^ Panzino, Charlsy (January 12, 2018). "Historian pleads guilty to stealing dog tags, military records from National Archives". Army Times. Retrieved April 19, 2019.


Further reading

External links

Media related to National Archives and Records Administration at Wikimedia Commons

Media related to NARA images by state at Wikimedia Commons

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Archival Recovery Program

The Archival Recovery Team of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) investigates documents and other items that have been lost or stolen from NARA, utilizing news, auction houses and websites, collector shows, and tips. Operating as part of NARA's Office of the Inspector General, they have had some notable successes in recovering items like presidential pardons from Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson or a Frederic Remington bronco statue given to George H.W. Bush. The Archival Recovery Team was created in 2006 by the Office of the Inspector General after thefts by NARA employees and researchers occurred. In August 2015, responsibility for non-law enforcement recovery activities was transferred from the Office of the Inspector General to the NARA Office of the Chief Operating Officer.There is considerable challenge in monitoring the National Archives, which contain more than ten billion letters, maps, reports, videos, and audio recordings, hundreds of thousands of artifacts, and 6.7 billion electronic files. A comprehensive item-by-item inventory has never been performed because of this size, so even recognizing that items are missing is difficult.To date, the team has recovered over 7000 items.

Archivist of the United States

The Archivist of the United States is the official overseeing the operation of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The first Archivist, R.D.W. Connor, began serving in 1934, when the National Archives was established as an independent federal agency by Congress. The Archivists served as subordinate officials of the General Services Administration from 1949 until the National Archives and Records Administration became an independent agency again on April 1, 1985. The position is held by David Ferriero, who was named to the office in 2009.

Bureau of Ordnance

The Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) was the U.S. Navy's organization responsible for the procurement, storage, and deployment of all naval weapons, between the years 1862 and 1959.

Executive order

In the United States, an executive order is a directive issued by the President of the United States that manages operations of the federal government and has the force of law. The legal or constitutional basis for executive orders has multiple sources. Article Two of the United States Constitution gives the president broad executive and enforcement authority to use their discretion to determine how to enforce the law or to otherwise manage the resources and staff of the executive branch. The ability to make such orders is also based on express or implied Acts of Congress that delegate to the President some degree of discretionary power (delegated legislation).Like both legislative statutes and regulations promulgated by government agencies, executive orders are subject to judicial review and may be overturned if the orders lack support by statute or the Constitution. Major policy initiatives require approval by the legislative branch, but executive orders have significant influence over the internal affairs of government, deciding how and to what degree legislation will be enforced, dealing with emergencies, waging wars, and in general fine-tuning policy choices in the implementation of broad statutes. As the head of state and head of government of the United States, as well as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, only the President of the United States can issue an executive order.

Presidential executive orders, once issued, remain in force until they are cancelled, revoked, adjudicated unlawful, or expire on their own terms. At any time, the President may revoke, modify, or make exceptions from any executive order, regardless if the order was made by the current president or a predecessor. Typically, a new president reviews enforced executive orders in the first few weeks in office.

Federal Reserve Board of Governors

The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, commonly known as the Federal Reserve Board, is the main governing body of the Federal Reserve System. It is charged with overseeing the Federal Reserve Banks and with helping implement the monetary policy of the United States. Governors are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate for staggered 14-year terms.

List of executive actions by Donald Trump

Listed below are executive orders beginning with order number 13765, Presidential memoranda, Presidential determinations, Presidential proclamations, Administrative orders, Presidential notices, Presidential sequestration orders and National security presidential memoranda signed by U.S. President Donald Trump. The total number of executive orders can be found here.

List of proclamations by Donald Trump

Listed below are the Presidential proclamations beginning with 9570 signed by United States President Donald Trump.

As of March 13, 2019, there have been 280 Presidential proclamations signed by President Trump.

National Archives Building

The National Archives Building, known informally as Archives I, is the original headquarters of the National Archives and Records Administration. It is located north of the National Mall at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C.. The Rotunda entrance is on Constitution Avenue, while the research entrance is on Pennsylvania Avenue. A second larger facility, known as "Archives II" (or simply as "A2"), is located in College Park, Maryland.

National Personnel Records Center

The National Personnel Records Center(s) (NPRC) is an agency of the National Archives and Records Administration, created in 1966. It is part of the National Archives federal records center system and is divided into two large Federal Records Centers located in St. Louis, Missouri and Valmeyer, Illinois. The term "National Personnel Records Center" is often used interchangeably to describe both the physical Military Personnel Records Center facility and as an overall term for all records centers in the St. Louis area. To differentiate between the two, the broader term is occasionally referred to as the "National Personnel Records Centers".

Office of the Federal Register

The Office of the Federal Register is an office of the United States government within the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Office publishes the Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, Public Papers of the Presidents, and United States Statutes at Large, among others. It also examines Electoral College and Constitutional amendment ratification documents for facial legal sufficiency and an authenticating signature.In May 2014, the Office held an "editathon" which focused on improving Wikipedia entries related to government entities.

Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act

The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) of 1974 (Pub.L. 93–526, 88 Stat. 1695, enacted December 19, 1974, codified at 44 U.S.C. § 2111, note) is an act of Congress enacted in the wake of the August 1974 resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. It placed Nixon's presidential records into federal custody to prevent their destruction. The legislative action was intended to reduce secrecy, while allowing historians to fulfill their responsibilities.

Presidential library

In the United States, the presidential library system is a nationwide network of 13 libraries administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). These are repositories for preserving and making available the papers, records, collections and other historical materials of every President of the United States from Herbert Hoover (31st President, 1929-1933) to George W. Bush (43rd President, 2001-2009). In addition to the library services, museum exhibitions concerning the presidency are displayed.

Although recognized as having historical significance, before the mid-20th century, presidential papers and effects were generally understood to be the private property of the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president, proposed to leave his papers to the public in a building donated by him on his Hyde Park estate. Since then a series of laws have established the public keeping of documents and the presidential library system.

While not officially sanctioned and maintained by the NARA, libraries have also been organized for several presidents who preceded Hoover and the official start of the Presidential Library Office. The library planned for Barack Obama (44th President, 2009–2017) will partner with the NARA in a "new model", digitizing and making available documents, but without NARA running a new separate facility.

Prologue (magazine)

Prologue is a publication of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The publication's articles are based on NARA's holdings and programs and material from the regional archives and the presidential libraries across the United States.The magazine was founded by James B. Rhoads, fifth archivist of the United States. The first issue of Prologue appeared in Spring 1969. The periodical's headquarters is in Atlanta, Georgia. The magazine ceased print publication in 2017.

United States House Committee on Accounts

The United States House Committee on Accounts was a standing committee of the

US House of Representatives from 1803 to 1946. It had purview over the financial accounts of the House's contingent fund, as well as some matters related to facilities and staffing. In 1946, it was merged into the newly formed the Committee on House Administration.

United States House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures

The Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures (established as the Committee on a Uniform System of Coinage, Weights, and Measures) was a standing committee of the United States House of Representatives from 1864 to 1946.

United States House Committee on Invalid Pensions

The United States House Committee on Invalid Pensions is a former committee of the United States House of Representatives from 1831 to 1946.

The committee was created on January 10, 1831 with jurisdiction over matters relating to pensions for disabled veterans. Originally, the jurisdiction of the committee included pensions from the War of 1812. The committee had become so overburdened with pensions from the Civil War, that on March 26, 1867, jurisdiction for pensions from the War of 1812 was transferred to the Committee on Revolutionary Pensions. Subsequently, jurisdiction of the Committee on Invalid Pensions included only matters relating to pensions of the Civil War, with the committee reporting general and special bills authorizing payments of pensions and bills for relief of soldiers of that war.

In 1939 the jurisdiction of the committee was changed to include, "the pensions of all the wars of the United States and peace-time service, other than the Spanish–American War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, and World War", while those pensions that fell in the excluded categories were tended to by the Committee on Pensions.

The committee was abolished under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 and its jurisdiction transferred, in large part, to the executive agencies.

United States House Committee on Mines and Mining

The United States House Committee on Mines and Mining is a defunct committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Committee on Mines and Mining was created on December 19, 1865, for consideration of subjects relating to mining interests. It exercised jurisdiction over the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Mines, the establishment of mining schools and mining experimental stations, mineral land laws, the welfare of men working in mines, mining debris, relief in cases of mineral contracts connected with the prosecution of war, the mining of radium ore, and the Government's fuel yards in the District of Columbia.

In 1947, the committee was abolished and its duties were transferred to the United States House Committee on Public Lands.

United States National Security Council

The White House National Security Council (NSC) is the principal forum used by the President of the United States for consideration of national security, military matters, and foreign policy matters with senior national security advisors and Cabinet officials and is part of the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Since its inception under Harry S. Truman, the function of the Council has been to advise and assist the President on national security and foreign policies. The Council also serves as the President's principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies. The Council has counterparts in the national security councils of many other nations.

Wood carving

Wood carving is a form of woodworking by means of a cutting tool (knife) in one hand or a chisel by two hands or with one hand on a chisel and one hand on a mallet, resulting in a wooden figure or figurine, or in the sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object. The phrase may also refer to the finished product, from individual sculptures to hand-worked mouldings composing part of a tracery.

The making of sculpture in wood has been extremely widely practised, but survives much less well than the other main materials such as stone and bronze, as it is vulnerable to decay, insect damage, and fire. It therefore forms an important hidden element in the art history of many cultures. Outdoor wood sculptures do not last long in most parts of the world, so it is still unknown how the totem pole tradition developed. Many of the most important sculptures of China and Japan, in particular, are in wood, and so are the great majority of African sculpture and that of Oceania and other regions. Wood is light and can take very fine detail so it is highly suitable for masks and other sculpture intended to be worn or carried. It is also much easier to work on than stone.

Some of the finest extant examples of early European wood carving are from the Middle Ages in Germany, Russia, Italy and France, where the typical themes of that era were Christian iconography. In England, many complete examples remain from the 16th and 17th century, where oak was the preferred medium.

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