Press/Journalists
Press Release
February 1999
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 are on permanent display in the National Archives Rotunda, in Washington, DC.

Placed in the center of the grand 75-foot high domed semi-circular rotunda, the Charters are displayed in a raised marble case, flanked by two 35-foot Barry Faulkner murals depicting the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, on the left; and James Madison presenting George Washington with the final draft of the U.S. Constitution, on the right. The Declaration is mounted vertically on the wall above the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The two pages not on display (the two middle pages of the Constitution) are stored in a vault beneath the display area and are not on view to the public. (George Washington's transmittal page for the Constitution, which is written on parchment, is also stored in the vault.)

Each of the six pages of the Charters and the transmittal page is encased in glass and metal containers filled with helium, placed there in 1951 by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) [now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)]. The documents have never been removed from these encasements.

Periodically, the Charters are 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 are not an immediate threat to the documents, but are symptomatic of glass deterioration. The deterioration is not readily visible under current exhibition conditions, but eventually the glass will become opaque and block the visibility of the documents.

Conservators agree that new technology could enhance the preservation of the documents. Current concerns relating to the housing are that the documents are in direct contact with the glass and that the glass is deteriorating.

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, instead of the current four-page 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 will be tested to support the design concept and to set specifications for the prototype and remaining encasements. The transmittal page will be removed first 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 was contracted to design the prototype. Heery sub-contracted the design to Nathan Stolow and Don Etherington, two leading conservators who specialize in document housings, such as the Magna Carta belonging to Ross Perot and Lincoln's draft of the Gettysburg Address for the Library of Congress.

The NBS successor agency, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), will build the prototype and remaining Charters encasements. The NIST Manufacturing Laboratory has the capability to cut out the encasement shell from a solid piece of aluminum or titanium. Currently, NIST is evaluating the options and benefits of different metals.

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

The new encasement housing the Bill of Rights will measure 39 1/4" tall by 37 7/8" wide. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution encasements will 39 1/4" tall by 33 5/8" wide. Because the new encasements will be considerably larger than the original ones, they will not fit in the current display area, nor will they fit into the current vault. The encasements' size, weight, and maintenance requirements will impact on the exhibit space and building design.

Installation

Before the documents are re-encased, they will be examined and their current condition documented. Baseline photographs will be taken. This will be the first opportunity to examine the documents outside the glass enclosure in 50 years. If their condition warrants it, the documents will receive conservation treatment. Practice and experience with rehousing the transmittal page into the prototype will accelerate 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 will be 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 close for renovations and reencasement after July 4, 2001 and reopen in 2003.

For additional PRESS information, please contact the National Archives Public Affairs staff at (301) 837-1700 or by e-mail.

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