The Record - March 1998

Preserving the Charters of Freedom

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Pew Charitable Trusts have announced that the Pew Trusts will grant NARA $800,000 to supplement appropriations that the President has requested from the Congress for re-encasing the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—in the rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. This is part of the special millennium program announced by the First Lady to preserve America's heritage.

After being stored in various locations—government offices, safes, and display cases—the documents that make up the Charters of Freedom have been in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration, which is legally entrusted with their care and preservation.

In preparation for their move to the National Archives Building nearly fifty years ago, the National Bureau of Standards placed the documents into hermetically sealed encasements filled with inert helium gas, which the Bureau believed would preserve the Charters well into the next century. Since the 1952 installation, NARA conservators have conducted regular visual inspection of the encased documents. Since 1987 those inspections have been greatly enhanced through the use of an electronic imaging monitoring system developed for NARA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

During an inspection of the documents in 1995, conservators noticed changes in the glass encasements of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Glass experts from Libby-Owens-Ford (original manufacturer of the encasement glass) and the Corning Glass Museum determined that the case glass components were showing signs of deterioration. Both the glass experts and the National Archives Advisory Committee on Preservation recommended that the Charters be re-encased within seven years (by 2002) to ensure the continued safety and preservation of the documents.

The Pew grant will help NARA design the prototype re-encasement for the Charters, supplementing the requested Federal appropriations for work on the Charter re-encasement. Rebecca W. Rimel, president of the Pew Trusts, said, "These are American touchstones and we are proud to offer our help to protect them from the ravages of time." According to plans, NARA will also design and construct a descriptive public exhibition to be displayed in the National Archives Building on the history of the Charters and their re-encasement. The exhibition will be in place during the millennium year.

In July 2001, the Charters will be taken off display in the Rotunda and removed from the cases in which they were placed in 1951. NARA's conservators will remove the documents from their cases one at a time to analyze their condition and determine what conservation measures may be needed.

During the 18-month period that the Charters are being re-encased and are therefore off display, NARA will use its traveling exhibit program to bring other documentary treasures and the story of the Charters to the American public. In addition, national media will be invited to witness and report on the historic re-encasement process, and a videotape record of the project will be produced as a permanent part of the national record. At the end of this period, the re-encased Charters will be moved back to a newly-renovated rotunda of the National Archives Building, and put on display again for the American public.

I am proposing a public-private partnership to advance our arts and humanities, and to celebrate the millennium by saving America's treasures, great and small...the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, are on display just a short walk from here. They are America's treasures. And we must also save them for the ages.

I ask all Americans to support our project to restore all our treasures so that the generations of the 21st century can see for themselves the images and words that are the old and continuing glory of America, an America that has continued to rise through every age against every challenge, a people of great works and greater possibilities...

Excerpt, President Clinton's State-of-the-Union Address