Preserving the nation's founding words

National Archives finishes a long and exacting restoration


October 26, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The original 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence is badly faded now. "When in the course of human events ... " the clarion call of Thomas Jefferson that severed the United States from Great Britain, dims into a brown autumnal haze on the old parchment. The bold signature of John Hancock has softened, become lighter, aged. The names of the Maryland signers just below Hancock's are all but illegible.

But in its new encasement at the National Archives, the old document still inspires awe. It's a physical link to the Founding Fathers, the generation that made the United States.

The Declaration and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the documents the Archives calls the Charters of Freedom, are back on display in the Rotunda of the Archives building after being away from public view 2 1/2 years. The building has been extensively renovated to make the documents more accessible to visitors, especially the handicapped, and the Charters have been re-encased after minute and painstaking conservation treatment. The entire project is estimated to have cost as much as $136 million.

The conservation itself, though, has been remarkably discreet. The conservators' work is all but invisible, and they like it that way.

"That's true," says Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Archives' Document Conservation Laboratory. "We certainly didn't want to have the documents look radically different."

The Charters, especially the Declaration, had been damaged over the years by excess exhibition and handling and rolling and insect feeding. The Declaration traveled frequently with the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, stopping for about four months in Baltimore at the end of 1776 until March 1777. It was moved again during the War of 1812, when the British attacked Washington, and hung exposed to sunlight for 35 years in the old Patent Office Building, now the National Portrait Gallery. By the time of the nation's centennial celebration in 1876, the Philadelphia Ledger said, it was already "faded and timeworn."

In the latest round of conservation, "We wanted to stabilize the documents," Ritzenthaler says. "One of the questions that a lot of people have asked, given the faded ink in some cases, is whether we would enhance that. Of course, we wouldn't."

"It's not ethical," says Catherine Nicholson, supervisory conservator in the conservation lab.

"Ethical from a conservation perspective," Ritzenthaler explains. "And also ... in addition to everything else, these are archival documents. And we don't change evidence. So we accept the damage that has occurred. We stabilize and mend and do fills so that there won't be more damage. But we don't want to alter the character of the evidence.

"These documents still are in the news pretty much every day," she says. "If we had done anything that had inadvertently changed the meaning of anything, that would have been pretty bad."

The conservators point out a "fill" in the upper right corner of the Declaration, an irregular trapezoid just above the final "A" in America. You probably wouldn't see it if you didn't know it was there. They use a Japanese paper that looks so much like parchment that it's difficult to see.

"We're not trying to be deceptive. It just blends so well with the color of the parchment," Ritzenthaler says. "We don't want it to be glaring and obvious. We want it to just match the rest of the document and not be eye-catching."

Insects eliminated

On the Constitution, they made fills for little areas that feeding by tiny insects had taken away decades ago.

Nicholson explains that the insects, which eat protein, feed on the Charters because they were written (in iron gall ink) on parchment, which is made from animal skin.

"They're on the Atkins diet," Ritzenthaler quips.

But presumably the insects haven't dined since 1951, when the documents were encased in inert helium gas so there could be no oxygen to support lunching insects.

Nicholson and Ritzenthaler are among the few who have actually touched the Charters in modern times - while wearing lab coats and gloves, of course. They opened the first of the 1951 encasements soon after the documents were removed from exhibition in July 2001. They slit through a lead seal like a clerk opening a thick envelope.

Inside the old encasements, each of the Charters lay on a dozen sheets of specially made paper with a plate of glass resting atop the document. In their old frames, the Charters had a green, aqueous look, as if they were under water.

"That was the filter," Nicholson says. "It had very thick kind of greenish glass."

In their new encasements, the Charters rest on one sheet of paper on a high-tech aluminum base under tempered glass in a titanium frame.

"Now there are layers of glass," Nicholson says. "But they haven't any reflective coating, so you don't see the light reflected in them. They seem to melt away. So there is that sense literally that you could almost reach down and touch them."

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