The Charters of Freedom - A New World is at Hand
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by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Catherine Nicholson
Prologue, Fall 2003

Historic Murals in the Charters of Freedom Rotunda

Assessing Condition and Making Treatment Decisions

More than two hundred years later, conservators in the no longer young nation examined the penmen's work to determine its condition. While the text on the whole mostly remained legible, under the microscope they could see where small flakes of ink had disappeared and other lifted flakes were tenuously attached. The once flat parchment, responding to changes in moisture and humidity, now undulated in many cockles or "hills and valleys." In the past, insects had nibbled the parchment, leaving lacey vulnerable edges on some sheets.

Conservators selected and proposed treatments to address these condition problems in each parchment document. The approach to treatment was conservative, designed to stabilize the parchment and preserve the legibility of the text. These were not documents on which to try a brand-new approach or apply new chemicals that had not stood the test of time. Nor was it appropriate to undertake any alteration of the significant text. Where ink flakes had been lost, it was not ethical to alter the content of a single line or change a single punctuation mark. The important task was to secure and preserve the ink that remained and thus the content of the text.

Some cuts or puncture holes were present that might look like damage but were in fact evidence of historical techniques used on the documents. Six one-inch vertical slits along the top edges of each page of the Constitution were cut with a sharp knife to allow the lacing of a ribbon to bind the leaves together. While they had been repaired in the past, the slits showed how the document leaves originally may have been secured together, so the conservators proposed removing the old repairs and leaving the slits open after treatment. Similarly, extremely small puncture holes deliberately made with a tool near the slits were also left in their original state and not repaired.

On the Declaration, close examination revealed small Y-shaped puncture holes regularly spaced along most edges. These punctures suggest that at some time in the past the parchment was stretched in a string mount to keep it flat and taut. Several edges of most of the parchments showed varying amounts of accumulated grime. This grime was an excellent indicator that the dirty edges were original. The lack of heavy grime on other edges suggested that trimming had occurred in a more recent era. Some edges, ragged and lacking grime, also indicated recent trimming with a less than sharp tool. None of this trimming, however, came near or endangered the text. All of these features would be noted in the permanent record of condition examination.

A conservator works on the Constitution.
A conservator examines the ink on Page One of the Constitution, letter by letter. In the treatment of this document, the most important step was to ensure that the original iron gall ink remained well adhered.
  Close-up of the Declaration before conservation treatment Close-up of the Declaration after conservation treatement  
  The image at left shows loss in the edge of the parchment near the word "America" on the Declaration of Independence. At right is the same area after conservation treatment. The loss was filled with a small piece of Japanese paper that was toned and burnished to resemble the parchment. With the loss filled, the edge of the Declaration is stable and visually intact.  

The first important steps were to conduct a condition assessment and write a detailed condition report on all that could be seen in examining the document. A treatment proposal was then written, outlining the exact procedures proposed to address the condition problems. Of the three documents to be treated, only one, the Declaration, had detailed records of previous treatment undertaken in 1942.

One of the legacies of the current project would be to leave detailed reports on condition and treatment, extensive photographic documentation, and results of scientific study and analysis. Therefore, the treatment proposal also included methods for taking microscopic surface samples of parchment to be used in scientific studies of the condition of the parchment. In addition, it was proposed to remove minute samples of ink from areas of spatter or smears that were not part of the text itself to verify the composition of the ink present. Because access to the documents would be limited after they were resealed in the new encasements, it was important to answer questions that remained from the 1942 treatment and to anticipate questions that future caretakers might have about these documents. After the treatment proposal was signed, which conveyed approval and written permission to proceed, treatment commenced.

Conservation Treatment Steps

The conservators' first step was to stabilize any lifting or insecure ink flakes with parchment size, a traditional gelatin adhesive made by cooking parchment scraps. Looking through a binocular microscope, the conservator guided the fine tip of a 0000 watercolor brush to apply droplets of size no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. The adhesive flowed under the ink flake, causing it to move back into its original position. This step was the most time consuming part of the treatment, as each line of text was examined, letter by letter, line by line, looking for flakes of ink that appeared insecurely attached.

Once the conservators had examined and secured the ink on the front, they could finally turn the parchment over to see the reverse. While the fronts of the documents had been visible in the glass encasements, layers of paper behind each parchment obscured the backs. Now the backs of the documents were visible. While there were no great surprises, random ink splotches and partial grayish hand and fingerprints were found on the backs of the Constitution pages.

The only text revealed was on the reverse of the Declaration, which has "The Original Declaration of Independence July 4th 1776." inscribed parallel to its bottom edge. This inscription, known from photographs from the 1940s, probably served as a label that could be read when the document was rolled up for storage.

Proceeding with treatment, the conservators gently cleaned dirt and grime in bare areas of parchment—taking special care to avoid disturbing original rule lines and other intentional marks. They removed old adhesive on the parchment that distorted the parchment sheet and made it resist lying flat.

The parchment was sandwiched between layers of a synthetic material that permitted the introduction of humidity to relax the skin fully. Then it was was dried under tension to return it to a flat plane. In this process of flattening, the challenge was to make the parchment limp without softening the ink so that it could be realigned to remove the distortions of many decades. The Declaration of Independence was the only parchment that was not humidified and flattened in this way. Compared to the other Charters documents, it had been more damaged by frequent handling and exhibition, and scientific study of the parchment confirmed that it was vulnerable to moisture. As a result, less treatment was carried out on the Declaration. Since it had received extensive treatment in 1942, it was already relatively flat, and its ink did not show vulnerable flakes that needed consolidation.

Where parchment edges had been lost to insects or physical damage, unobtrusive repairs were made with a handmade Japanese paper that closely matched the original parchment in color and thickness, with parchment size as adhesive. These repairs would protect the vulnerable edges from snagging or curling and suggest the original rectangular shape of the documents.

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