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May & June 2003 Feature

Restoring the Historic Murals in the National Archives Building

Richard Blondo
Archives Specialist
National Archives Building Renovation Team

Mural, before conservation Mural, after conservation
This detail of Barry Faulkner's Declaration of Independence mural depicts Founding Fathers Joseph Hewes and Edward Rutledge. The photograph at left shows some of the buckling where the mural had lost connection to the wall. The photograph at right shows what that section looks like after it was restored and rehung in the Rotunda. (Photo by Olin Conservation, Inc.)

When the Rotunda of the National Archives Building reopens in September, visitors will once again be able to view the original Charters of Freedom. As they enter the hall, they will see, as visitors have for 65 years, the two large-scale murals that depict fictional scenes of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the paintings will have a new look—no longer tired and dingy, they have been painstakingly cleaned and conserved.

In the decades after Barry Faulkner created these murals in 1936, they had noticeably deteriorated. The plaster behind the canvases had crumbled in places, causing buckles and bulges. Some paint layers had separated. Dust and detritus that accumulated over the decades had caused the images to become dingy. Even though some surface cleaning had taken place in 1970, they needed full conservation treatment.

As part of the overall renovation of the National Archives Building, the Rotunda was closed July 5, 2001, until September 17, 2003, thus allowing time for the murals to be removed, conserved, and reinstalled in a thorough, deliberate manner.

Several donors have made the murals project possible. The effort was supported in part by a grant from Save America's Treasures through a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Gifts also came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Bay Foundation. The conservation of the Rotunda murals was designated an official Save America's Treasures project in 1999.

Atlantic Company of America, Inc., was general contractor for Olin Conservation, Inc., which planned and performed the heroic task of removing the massive murals, transporting them to a specially constructed conservation lab, restoring the artwork, and reinstalling them.

Under the direction of senior conservator David Olin, the conservation team began its work in November 2000. UBS, Inc. (a scaffolding contractor), erected a special curved scaffold in the Rotunda. The mural surfaces underwent preliminary cleaning to remove dust and grime. Tissue paper was adhered to the painted surface to protect the paint in preparation for removing the murals off the curved walls.

Because the murals had been affixed to the walls with a lead adhesive, the removal process had to follow stringent lead-abatement procedures. After softening the adhesive layers, the murals could be painstakingly separated from the wall. Only moderate amounts of plaster and excess lead adhesive remained affixed to the back of the canvas. The paintings were gradually rolled onto enormous aluminum spools as they came off the walls, then transferred from the metal spools to very large and sturdy cardboard tubes.

In December 2001, a team of movers carried the rolled murals out the back door of the Rotunda, down the marble staircase to the Pennsylvania Avenue lobby, and out the door to a waiting truck that whisked them to the conservation laboratory where they remained until November 2002, when the studio conservation work was complete.

While in the lab, remnants of plaster and adhesive were removed, and the murals were flattened. The paintings were infused with a synthetic wax resin to stabilize the aged canvas and the underlying paint. Then the tissue paper on the painted surface, the paste from the tissue paper, the layers of grime, and varnish were removed with meticulous care. Next, the murals were expertly cleaned to remove discolored varnish and coatings.

In December 2002, the murals were reinstalled onto aluminum panels newly affixed to the Rotunda walls. The panels cannot be seen, but they will make it easier to remove the murals again whenever they require conservation. After final varnishing, in-painting was done in small areas where paint had flaked off. A temporary barrier was placed over the murals in January 2003 to protect them as the Rotunda renovation proceeded.

When the Rotunda reopens in September, the murals will be seen in all their glory in the light of a new fiber-optic system designed and installed by BAND, Inc. (a lighting contractor). Barry Faulkner would be pleased.

 

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