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1297 Magna Carta Gets Face-Lift

Ten-Month Conservation Project Ends With 1297 Magna Carta On Display at National Archives

In 1297, King Edward I’s war against Scotland was not going so well. To assuage his dissatisfied nobles and persuade them to finance the battle against William Wallace (of “Braveheart” fame), the English king known as Longshanks reaffirmed the nobility’s rights and the limits on his power that were enshrined 82 years earlier in the Magna Carta.

The document he signed, the 1297 Magna Carta — the only original copy in the United States and one of only four in the world — will return to its public display case at the National Archives on Feb. 17 after a 10-month conservation and preservation effort. 

The 1297 document is not as celebrated as its 1215 predecessor. But it’s quite an antiquarian coup for the National Archives.

The Great Charter has been out of sight for
almost a year, undergoing surgery-like restoration by Archives conservationists and being prepared for encasement in a structure crafted by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

It was unveiled at a news conference last week.

“A nuclear bomb would not be able to destroy this,” joked David Rubenstein, who bought the Magna Carta for $21 million and has loaned it to the Archives.

Rubenstein, co-founder of a private equity firm, has made the purchasing of important historical documents for display in museums around the country one of his primary philanthropic causes.

In addition to a $13.5 million donation to the Archives, Rubenstein also underwrote the cost of refurbishing the Magna Carta, which will be placed alongside a new interactive exhibition helping visitors understand how the British charter influenced our Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

Treating the Magna Carta

When Rubenstein purchased the Magna Carta at Sotheby’s auction house in 2007 — the former owner was one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot — the modest sheaf of parchment scrawled in medieval English was worse for the wear.

The process of restoring the document that began last year was intended to extend its life while making it more dazzling to display and easier to read. 

Kitty Nicholson, deputy director of the Archives’ Conservation Lab, oversaw a pair of conservationists who applied the latest techniques and technologies in the restoration.

Their 10-month “conservation treatment,” as they call it, began with determining the document’s overall condition and what fixes had to be made. Infrared and ultraviolet photography was used to see damage “not visible to the naked eye,” as Nicholson put it, such as water spills obliterating text.

Any 700-year-old document has most likely been subject to various repairs over time. Doing a major overhaul requires removal of those age-old fixes and replacing them with newer, better materials.

Years-old glue and paper fills are painstakingly removed with tweezers, brushes and tools wielded with the steady precision of a surgeon. Unlike a doctor in an operating room, however, the conservators don’t wear gloves: It’s important, they said, to work with bare hands to get a truer feel for the material.

Tears and holes in the parchment — which Nicholson pointed out is actually not paper but specially prepared and stretched animal skin — were refilled with long-fibered Japanese and Korean papers painted with watercolors to match the Magna Carta’s tone.

And finally, to keep the document from warping, it was humidified and then dried between pieces of felt for several months to be made perfectly flat.

Encasing the Document

When the Magna Carta was ready to be sealed up for display, a state-of-the-art encasement was ready for it.

The 225-pound black case suspends the Magna Carta so that it appears to be floating behind clear glass. It’s beautifully crafted and looks simply made, but this is no ordinary frame: It was created especially for this Magna Carta by a group of technicians at the NIST who frequently do encasement projects for the Archives and for the Library of Congress.

Both organizations use the expertise of NIST scientists to design and build encasements that can contain special atmospheres in which old and fragile historical documents can rest safely.

The encasement prepared for the Magna Carta was sealed with an atmosphere of 99 percent high-purity argon, 1 percent high-purity helium and an initial oxygen concentration of 1 part per million — a mix that experts say is crucial to the document’s long-term preservation.

To maintain temperatures in and outside the encasement, monitors are hidden behind the structure that will let Archives officials know whether atmospheric pressures are above a “safe” level.

Project engineer Jay Brandenburg said there were challenges to building an encasement with so many specifications, especially because they didn’t get hold of the document until the very final stages.

“It’s better than what I did in woodworking class,” Rubenstein said.

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