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Charters of Freedom Re-encasement Project

Note: All of the documents featured in “Charters of Freedom” are from the holdings of the National Archives. For prints, or for more information, contact the National Archives Public Affairs Media Desk.


Schedule for Renovation of the National Archives Building

Washington, DC. . . The National Archives Building, the home of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and millions of other historically-valuable documents, in downtown Washington, DC, is undergoing a major renovation that began in February 2000. The research side of the building, located on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 7th and 9th Streets, NW, will remain open for business throughout the renovation. The exhibition side, on Constitution Avenue, closed for renovation on July 5, 2001 and will reopen in 2003.

The renovation of the Rotunda and the surrounding exhibition space will include: restoring the two oversized murals by Barry Faulkner depicting the presentation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; reconfiguring the display cases for the Charters of Freedom so that all four pages of the Constitution can be displayed (currently only the first and last pages can be displayed;) and so that the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights will be accessible to handicapped visitors; and constructing new exhibition space to showcase some of the highlights from the National Archives collection. While the Rotunda is under construction, the Charters of Freedom are being removed from their current encasements, examined by conservators, and re-encased in new airtight containers made of aluminum, titanium, and glass that will be filled with argon gas.

The renovation of the building will include updating or replacing all of the major systems: HVAC, electrical and plumbing; renovating the stack and research areas; creating a new genealogy and family history center; enlarging the microfilm research room; and building new conference and meeting spaces.


Fact Sheet: New Encasements for the Charters of Freedom

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (on permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. until July 5, 2001) have guaranteed the rights and freedoms of Americans for more than 200 years. From 1952 until July 5, 2001, these great documents -- known collectively as the Charters of Freedom -- were preserved in helium-filled cases created by the Commerce Department's National Bureau of Standards, predecessor to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, (NIST). Now, the National Archives and Records Administration, NIST, NASA and Heery International have teamed to design new state-of-the-art enclosures for the Charters of Freedom and to re-encase the documents.

In the original encasements, deterioration of the glass appeared as small surface cracks, crystals and droplets. This deterioration would eventually cause the glass to become opaque. Additionally, contact between the parchment and the glass could cause abrasions to the parchment. Correcting these problems was impossible because the cases are soldered shut and cannot be opened without compromising the seal.

The design for the new encasements will allow conservators to open and reseal the cases-- if it's ever necessary-- to examine the documents or modify the interior components. The documents will be mounted so that glass never touches parchment. Ultra-smooth surfaces, new space age gaskets and the use of argon gas, rather than helium, will prevent leakage. The new design allows for flexibility to incorporate future conservation techniques as they are developed.

Specifications for the new encasements:

  • Number of encasements - Nine encasements are being built. An "original prototype" (sized for the Bill of Rights), a "final prototype" (sized for the Constitution), and seven final encasements (one based on the size of the Bill of Rights, six based on the size of the Constitution). A manufacturing model (which was unveiled on March 17, 1999) provided valuable information during preliminary testing. The two prototypes will be used as spare encasements.

  • Encasement dimensions - There are two sizes: the larger encasement is approximately 994 millimeters (39-1/8 inches) tall by 957 millimeters (37-11/16 inches) wide. It will house the Bill of Rights. The six smaller encasements are 994 millimeters (39-1/8 inches) tall by 862 millimeters (33-15/16 inches) wide. They will house the Declaration of Independence, the four pages of the Constitution and the transmittal sheet.

  • Encasement materials -

    Frame - Commercially pure titanium with an electroless nickel plating used to bond a thin final gold plating;

    Seal - The seal surface is machined, diamond turned, nickel plated and post polished after plating;

    Base - Monolithic aluminum alloy with nickel plating on the exterior for protection and a black hard coat anodized interior finish;

    Glass - 9.5 millimeters (3/8 inch) laminated, tempered float glass that includes an anti-reflective coating;

    O-rings - One single C-section metal seal made from inconel with tin plating;

    Platform - High-grade aluminum with holes spaced to provide moisture transfer between the humidified argon gas and the document;

    Bolts - 70 steel bolts per encasement, spaced slightly less than 50.8 millimeters (2 inches) on center around the perimeter in between the seal surface stiffening ribs. This provides a seal pressure of 50 newton per millimeter (300 pounds per lineal inch) along the O-ring.

    Pockets - To reduce weight of encasement, strategic areas (or pockets) of material have been removed from the base, the document platform and the titanium frame. In the base, the pockets are on the bottom of the base and are approximately 50.8 millimeters (2 inches) square. In the frame, the pockets are in between the bolts and are on the underside of the frame (concealed from view). The pockets in the document platform are approximately 50.8 millimeters (2 inches) on center.

    Maintenance Pockets - The maintenance pockets (two per encasement) are in the base for the required accessories (valves, pressure gauges, sensors, etc) The maintenance pockets are approximately 355.6 millimeters (14 inches) by 177.8 millimeters (7 inches) by 25.4 millimeters (1 inch) deep and have two, 6.4 millimeter (1/4 inch) openings into the base of the encasement for gas supply and purging. Integral to the plumbing in the maintenance pockets are the two pressure transducers, one humidity sensor and the pressure relief device;

    Ports - Two ports have been placed in one edge of the encasement for installation of sapphire windows. These windows will be used for non-sampling testing techniques of the argon gas;

    Monitoring - Two pressure sensors are provided. Temperature will be monitored outside the encasement. There are two ports provided for possible spectroscopic analysis of the interior gas;

    Buffering - There is pure cellulose paper beneath the document to buffer the moisture within the atmosphere and provide an opaque background.

    Finishes - The seal surface is nickel-plated and post polished to very tight surface finish tolerances.

  • Encasement Environment - Temperature will be 19.4 degrees Celsius (67 degrees Fahrenheit) plus or minus 1.25 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). The relative humidity of the inert argon gas shall be 40 percent. The display case is to provide 19.4 degrees Celsius (67 degrees Fahrenheit) ambient conditions and a relative humidity of 45 percent plus or minus 5 percent. 99-76

Fast Facts about the Charters of Freedom

  • The Charters of Freedom are: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.

  • The original Declaration of Independence, the first and last pages of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, until July 5, 2001.

  • The Constitution consists of four pages of text and a transmittal page.

  • All three documents are hand-written with iron gall ink on parchment (animal skin).

  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were transferred to the National Archives Building from the Library of Congress in 1952. They had been in the custody of the Library of Congress since 1922. (Prior to that, they were at the Department of State.)

  • The Bill of Rights was transferred directly to the National Archives from the Department of State in 1938.

  • After careful evaluation, it was determined that the original air-tight encasements were deteriorating. The documents themselves were not in any danger. The National Archives is working with world-class conservators and scientists to design and build new encasements. As the documents are taken out of their original enclosures, it is the first time in 50 years that the documents can be examined without glass. Conservators are determining what conservation work will be done on the documents.

  • The renovation of the Rotunda will allow for all four pages of the Constitution to be displayed along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The new display will also be handicapped accessible.

  • The National Archives Rotunda is closed temporarily for renovation and reencasement of the Charters. It will reopen in 2003.

Background Information on the Charters of Freedom

Background

The Charters of Freedom, consisting of six parchment engrossed pages--the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (four pages), and the Bill of Rights, are the founding documents of our democracy. Four of these pages: the Declaration of Independence, the first and last pages of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were on display in the National Archives Rotunda, in Washington, DC, until July 5, 2001, when the Rotunda was closed temporarily for renovation and the re-encasement project.

Each of the six pages of the Charters and the transmittal page was encased in glass and metal containers filled with helium, installed in 1951 by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) [now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)]. The documents had not been removed from these encasements until 2001.

Over the last five years the Charters were periodically examined by National Archives conservation experts, using a state-of-the-art imaging device, the Charters Monitoring System (CMS). This system was developed for NARA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is based on the same technology used by the Hubble Space Telescope. The CMS compares digital images of the documents over time.

In 1995, a CMS examination of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence indicated changes in the physical structure of the glass used to encase the documents. Microscopic crystals were observed on the inside surfaces of the glass. Glass experts from the original manufacturer of the encasements (Libby-Owens-Ford) and from museums, such as the Corning Glass Museum, were consulted and asked for an independent evaluation of the Charters' encasement glass. The general consensus was that, at this stage, the crystals were not an immediate threat to the documents, but were symptomatic of glass deterioration. The deterioration was not readily visible under current exhibition conditions, but eventually the glass would become opaque and block the visibility of the documents.

Conservators agreed that new technology could enhance the preservation of the documents. After careful consideration, the NARA preservation staff concluded that the glass should not come into direct contact with the documents and that the documents should not be displayed and stored vertically. These requirements alone rule out the long-term use of the current display system.

Goals

New encasements will provide the most effective means of environmental preservation; accommodate all six pages of the Charters for public display; remove pages from vertical placement; eliminate direct contact of the glass with parchment; use new glass; and facilitate viewing by individuals with disabilities.

Design Concept

The design concept called for separate encasement of each of the seven pages; maintenance of an inert atmosphere, such as argon, inside each encasement; 40% relative humidity within each encasement by a self-contained, passive system; and surrounding the encasements with a stable temperature of 67 degrees Fahrenheit. There must be no possibility of intrusion by insects or particulate matter; therefore, there must be no airflow through the encasement, and there will be no separate temperature control for each encasement.

Building of Models and Prototypes

A model was developed during late 1998 and early 1999. It consists of an aluminum base, a titanium frame and 3/8" thick laminated tempered glass. It was tested to support the design concept and to set specifications for the prototype and remaining encasements. The transmittal page was the first parchment page to be removed from its old encasement and placed in the prototype encasement. Each document will have to be fitted for a new mounting that will hold the page inside the encasement.

In 1998, NARA received a grant of $800,000 from the Pew Charitable Trusts to support the prototype design and construction. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $4 million for the fabrication of the new cases, the design and construction of a monitoring lab, and a new protective vault for the documents. Heery International and the NBS successor agency, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), designed the new encasements. The NIST Manufacturing Laboratory which has the capability to cut out the encasement shell from a solid piece of aluminum or titanium built the encasements.

Libby-Owens-Ford (now a part of Pilkington) has furnished the latest state-of-the-art glazing for the encasement's viewing panel.

The new encasement housing the Bill of Rights measures 39 1/4" tall by 37 7/8" wide. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution encasements are 39 1/4" tall by 33 5/8" wide. Because the new encasements are considerably larger than the original ones, they will not fit into the Rotunda display areas as it was originally designed. The encasements' size, weight, and maintenance requirements will impact on the exhibit space and building design.

Installation

The Charters are being examined and their current condition documented. Baseline photographs are being taken. This is the first opportunity to examine the documents outside the glass enclosure in 50 years. When their condition warrants it, the documents are receiving conservation treatment. Practice and experience with rehousing the transmittal page into the prototype has helped the process of examination, treatment, mounting, and encasing the remaining pages.

New cases will have a major impact on space, access, security, and display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. The encasement redesign has been integrated into a redesign of the entire Rotunda of the National Archives Building to improve public access for viewing the Charters of Freedom. The Rotunda will reopen in 2003 after the renovation and re-encasement are completed.


Travels of the Charters of Freedom

Early Travels, 1776-1814

Once the Declaration was signed, the document most likely accompanied the Continental Congress as it traveled during the uncertain months and years of the Revolution. Initially, like other parchment documents of the time, the Declaration was probably stored in a rolled format. Each time the document was used, it was unrolled and re-rolled. This action, as well as holding the curled parchment flat, doubtless took its toll on the ink and on the parchment surface through abrasion and flexing. Even though the acidity inherent in the iron gall ink used by the engrosser, Timothy Matlack, allowed the ink to "bite" into the surface of the parchment, the rolling and unrolling of the parchment still presented many hazards.

After the signing ceremony on August 2, 1776, the Declaration was probably filed in Philadelphia in the office of Charles Thomson, who served as the Secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789. On December 12, threatened by the British, Congress adjourned and reconvened 8 days later in Baltimore, MD. A light wagon carried the Declaration to its new home, where it remained until its return to Philadelphia in March of 1777. In July of 1789, the First Congress under the new Constitution created the Department of Foreign Affairs and directed that its Secretary should have "the custody and charge of all records, books and papers" kept by the department of the same name under the old government. Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration, returned from France to assume his duties as the first Secretary of State in March of 1790. Appropriately, those duties now included custody of the Declaration.

In July of 1790, Congress provided for a permanent capital to be built among the woodlands and swamps bordering the Potomac River. Ten years later, by direction of President John Adams, the Declaration and other government records were moved from Philadelphia to the new federal capital.

In 1814, the United States was again at war with Great Britain. Secretary of State James Monroe rode out to observe the landing of British forces along the Patuxent River in Maryland. A message from Monroe alerted State Department officials, including a clerk named Stephen Pleasonton, of the imminent threat to the capital city and, of also to the government's official records. Pleasonton "proceeded to purchase coarse linen, and cause it to be made into bags of convenient size, in which the gentlemen of the office" packed the precious books and records including the Declaration. A cartload of records was then taken up the Potomac River to an unused gristmill belonging to Edgar Patterson. Here the Declaration and the other records remained, probably overnight. On August 24, while the White House and other government buildings were burning, the Declaration was stored 35 miles away at Leesburg. The Declaration remained there at a private home until the British had withdrawn their troops from Washington and their fleet from the Chesapeake Bay. In September 1814, the Declaration was returned to the nation's capital. With the exception of a trip to Philadelphia for the Centennial and to Fort Knox during World War II, it has remained there ever since.

Washington, 1814-76

From 1814 to 1841, the Declaration was kept in three different locations as the State Department records were shifted about the growing city. The last of these locations was a brick building that, it was later observed, "offered no security against fire."

The longest of the early sojourns of the Declaration was from 1841 to 1876. In 1841, Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote to Commissioner of Patents Henry L. Ellsworth, who was then occupying a new building (now the National Portrait Gallery), that "having learned that there is in the new building appropriated to the Patent Office suitable accommodations for the safe-keeping, as well as the exhibition of the various articles now deposited in this Department, and usually, exhibited to visitors . . . I have directed them to be transmitted to you." An inventory accompanied the letter. Item 6 was the Declaration.

The Declaration and Washington's commission as commander in chief were mounted together in a single frame and hung in a white painted hall opposite a window offering exposure to sunlight. There they were to remain on exhibit for 35 years. This prolonged exposure to sunlight accelerated the deterioration of the ink and parchment of the Declaration.

The Centennial and the Debate Over Preservation, 1876-1921

In 1876 the Declaration was exhibited in Philadelphia at the Centennial National Exposition. The Public Ledger for May 8, 1876, noted that it was in Independence Hall "framed and glazed for protection, and . . . deposited in a fireproof safe especially designed for both preservation and convenient display. [When the outer doors of the safe were opened, the parchment was visible behind a heavy plate-glass inner door; the doors were closed at night.] Its aspect is of course faded and time-worn. The text is fully legible, but the major part of the signatures are so pale as to be only dimly discernible in the strongest light, a few remain wholly readable, and some are wholly invisible, the spaces which contained them presenting only a blank."

The following year, the Declaration was placed in a cabinet in the State Department library, where it was exhibited for the next 17 years. Even though smoking was permitted in the library, and the room contained an open fireplace, this location turned out to be safer than the premises just vacated; much of the Patent Office was gutted in a fire that occurred a few months later.

In 1894, the State Department announced that the Declaration could no longer be displayed, given its fragile condition: "The rapid fading of the text of the original Declaration of Independence and the deterioration of the parchment upon which it is engrossed, from exposure to light and lapse of time, render it impracticable for the Department longer to exhibit it or to handle it. For the secure preservation of its present condition, so far as may be possible, it has been carefully wrapped and placed flat in a steel case."

On May 5, 1920, a committee appointed by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby commented on the housing of the document: "The safes are constructed of thin sheets of steel. They are not fireproof nor would they offer much obstruction to an evil-disposed person who wished to break into them." About the physical condition of the Declaration, the committee stated: "We believe the fading can go no further. We see no reason why the original document should not be exhibited if the parchment be laid between two sheets of glass, hermetically sealed at the edges and exposed only to diffused light."

The committee also made some important "supplementary recommendations." It noted that on March 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt had directed that certain records relating to the Continental Congress be turned over by the Department of State to the Library of Congress: "This transfer was made under a provision of an Act of February 25, 1903, that any Executive Department may turn over to the Library of Congress books, maps, or other material no longer needed for the use of the Department." The committee recommended that the remaining papers, including the Declaration and the Constitution, be similarly given over to the custody of the Library of Congress. For the Declaration, therefore, two important changes were in the offing: a new home and the possibility of exhibition to "the patriotic public."

The Library of Congress . . . and Fort Knox, 1921-52

Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam was both ready and eager. He presented himself forthwith at the State Department. The safes were opened, and the Declaration and the Constitution were carried off to the Library of Congress in the Library's "mail wagon," cushioned by a pile of leather U.S. mail sacks. Upon arrival, the two national treasures were placed in a safe in Putnam's office.

On October 3, Putnam took up the matter of a permanent location. In a memorandum to the superintendent of the Library building and grounds, Putnam proceeded from the premise that "in the Library" the documents "might be treated in such a way as, while fully safe-guarding them and giving them distinction, they should be open to inspection by the public at large."

The sum of $12,000 requested by the Librarian, was appropriated and approved on March 20, 1922. Francis H. Bacon was appointed to design a "shrine" to house the Declaration. The Declaration was to be housed in a frame of gold-plated bronze doors and covered with double panes of plate glass with specially prepared gelatin films between the plates to exclude the harmful rays of light. A 24-hour guard would provide protection.

On February 28, 1924, the shrine was dedicated in the presence of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Secretary Hughes, and other distinguished guests. Not a word was spoken during a moving ceremony in which Putnam fitted the Declaration into its frame. There were no speeches. Two stanzas of America were sung. In Putnam's words: "The impression on the audience proved the emotional potency of documents animate with a great tradition."

With only one interruption, the Declaration hung on the wall of the second floor of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress until December 1952. On April 30, 1941, worried that the war raging in Europe might engulf the United States, the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. "to enquire whether space might perhaps be found" at the Bullion Depository in Fort Knox for his most valuable materials, including the Declaration, "in the unlikely event that it becomes necessary to remove them from Washington."

On December 23, the Declaration and the Constitution were removed from the shrine and placed between two sheets of acid-free manilla paper. The documents were then carefully wrapped in a container of all-rag neutral millboard and placed in a specially designed bronze container, secured with padlocks on each side. The container was finally sealed with lead and packed in a heavy box; the whole weighed some 150 pounds. At about 5 p.m. the box, along with other vital records, was loaded into an armed and escorted truck, taken to Union Station, and placed in a compartment of the Pullman sleeper Eastlake. More Secret Service agents and a cavalry troop of the 13th Armored Division met the train in Louisville, KY, and convoyed its precious contents to the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.

In 1944, when the military authorities assured the Library of Congress that all danger of enemy attack had passed, the documents were removed from Fort Knox. On Sunday, October 1, at 11:30 a.m., the doors of the Library were opened and once again the Declaration was back in its shrine.

With the return of peace, the keepers of the Declaration were mindful of the increasing technological expertise available to them relating to the preservation of the parchment. They were readily assisted by the National Bureau of Standards, which even before World War II, had researched the preservation of the Declaration. The problem of shielding it from harsh light, for example, had in 1924 led to the insertion of a sheet of yellow gelatin between the protective plates of glass. Yet this procedure lessened the visibility of an already faded parchment. Could not some improvement be made?

In 1951, following careful studies made by the Library staff, members of the National Bureau of Standards, and representatives of a glass manufacture, the Declaration was sealed in a thermopane enclosure filled with properly humidified helium. The exhibit case was equipped with a filter to screen out damaging light. The new enclosure also had the effect of preventing harm from air pollution, a growing peril. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were also preserved in the same manner.

Soon after, however, the Declaration was to make one more move, the one to its present home.

The National Archives, 1952 to the Present

In 1933, while the Depression gripped the nation, President Hoover laid the cornerstone for the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. He announced that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would eventually be kept in the impressive structure that was to occupy the site. Indeed, it was for their keeping and display that the Exhibition Hall in the National Archives had been designed. The final transfer of these special documents did not, however, take place until almost 20 years later.

At 11 a.m., December 13, 1952, Brigadier General Stoyte O. Ross, commanding general of the Air Force Headquarters Command, formally received the documents at the Library of Congress. Twelve members of the Armed Forces Special Police carried the 6 pieces of parchment in their helium-filled glass cases, enclosed in wooden crates, down the Library steps through a line of 88 servicewomen. An armored Marine Corps personnel carrier awaited the documents. Once they had been placed on mattresses inside the vehicle, they were accompanied by a color guard, ceremonial troops, the Army Band, the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps, two light tanks, four servicemen carrying submachine guns, and a motorcycle escort in a parade down Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues to the Archives Building. Both sides of the parade route were lined by Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, and Air Force personnel. At 11:35 a.m. General Ross and the 12 special policemen arrived at the National Archives Building, carried the crates up the steps, and formally delivered them into the custody of Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover. (Already at the National Archives was the Bill of Rights.)

The formal enshrining ceremony two days later, was equally impressive. Chief Justice of the United States Fred M. Vinson presided over the ceremony, attended by officials of more than 100 national civic, patriotic, religious, veterans, educational, business, and labor groups. Governor Elbert N. Carvel of Delaware, the first state to ratify the Constitution, called the roll of states in the order in which they ratified the Constitution or were admitted to the Union. As each state was called, a servicewoman carrying the state flag entered the Exhibition Hall and remained at attention in front of the display cases circling the hall. President Harry S. Truman, the featured speaker, said: "The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are now assembled in one place for display and safekeeping. . . . We are engaged here today in a symbolic act. We are enshrining these documents for future ages. . . . This magnificent hall has been constructed to exhibit them, and the vault beneath, that we have built to protect them, is as safe from destruction as anything that the wit of modern man can devise. All this is an honorable effort, based upon reverence for the great past, and our generation can take just pride in it."

The Declaration has had many homes, from humble lodgings and government offices to great public displays. It has been carried in wagons, ships, a Pullman sleeper, and an armored vehicle. In its current home, it is viewed by more than one million people a year, everyone of whom has had a moment to reflect on the meaning of democracy. In the words of poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are "these fragile objects which bear so great a weight of meaning to our people."

When the National Archives Rotunda reopens in 2003, for the first time, all four pages of the U.S. Constitution will be displayed with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. These American treasures, safely housed in their new encasements, will be accessible to all Americans.

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