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
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.
Articles in Prologue:
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.
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
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.