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

Looking to the Future

As the project ends, the conservators think about what has been accomplished and the tasks ahead. The physical nature of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights has been examined, documented, and treated—and the documents placed in new handsome, technologically advanced encasements.

The new encasements, which look like large, deep picture frames, were constructed by NIST of titanium and aluminum. The frames are gold plated to evoke the style of historic frames. Inside each encasement, the parchment document rests on a metal platform with a cushion of handmade paper. The paper acts to absorb or release moisture in the event of temperature or humidity changes inside the encasement. Polyester tabs secure the parchment documents to the platform.

The encasement design includes a pair of sapphire windows in the top edge that permit a light beam to travel a path below the document platform, reflected by precisely positioned mirrors. Using a new optical instrument to compare and detect characteristic absorption of certain wavelengths in the exiting light beam, conservators and scientists in the near and long term will be able to determine the relative humidity and the oxygen content of the inert argon gas environment within the encasements. Any changes (such as the presence of oxygen) that could have a detrimental effect on the documents will be cause to start the cycle again—to break the seals that should last much longer than one hundred years and again expose these historic parchments to the air. Looking ahead raises the question of how long this work will hold and what new tools will become available to preserve these documents in the future.

Far sighted as they were, the Framers could never have dreamed of the steps that future caretakers would take—and the amazing space-age tools and technologies brought to bear—to ensure the preservation of their words written on parchment in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

While some may argue that these documents are mere musty parchments—old ink on old parchment—the ideas they contain continue to be argued and brought to bear on every aspect of American life. Their concepts remain fresh and pertinent to the latest-breaking news—to events that the Framers could scarcely have imagined.

Related Articles in Prologue:

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.  

About the Authors

Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, who is chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, joined the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration in 1985. She worked previously for the Society of American Archivists and the University of Illinois at Chicago and studied bookbinding for many years in Chicago. She has written extensively on archives preservation topics.

Catherine Nicholson is supervisory conservator in the Document Conservation Laboratory. She has an M.S. in Conservation from the University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum program and has worked as a paper conservator at the National Archives and Records Administration since 1984.


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