NARA Conservators Reveal Previously Illegible Text in Magna Carta

The National Archives has completed the first phase of a major project leading to the re-encasement and public display of Magna Carta. The document – written on parchment in 1297 with iron gall ink – is one of 17 surviving versions of Magna Carta in the world today, the only one in North America and the only Magna Carta in private hands.

The document is on loan to the National Archives from David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group in Washington, DC.

In the course of treatment ultra-violet photography revealed previously illegible writing in the text of the document that had been obliterated by water damage at some unknown time in the past. Magna Carta was removed from display at the National Archives building in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2011. In a secure location the document has been treated by National Archives senior conservators Terry Boone and Morgan Zinsmeister. The project manager is supervisory conservator Catherine Nicholson. A short documentary video – produced by the National Archives and in the public domain – chronicles the document’s conservation treatment online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqQVY1Zn0oM

The conservation team first assessed Magna Carta’s condition, and then proceeded to stabilize the document, which is extremely vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity. The work was undertaken in an environment under precise climate control. The treatment began with an in-depth examination supported by extensive photographic documentation before and during treatment. Old repairs and residual adhesive were removed and the areas of loss were filled with long-fibered, handmade conservation papers, toned to match the color of the parchment. The fills were secured with an adhesive mixture of gelatin and wheat starch paste. Additional fills and repairs were applied to damaged areas by conservators Boone and Zinsmeister. All the repairs used chemically-stable materials which can be easily removed if future conservation techniques require it. The document was then humidified and flattened.

Magna Carta will lie undisturbed for at least three months under blotters and weights until the sensitive parchment reaches equilibrium moisture content, prior to being placed in a new, sealed encasement filled with carefully humidified argon — an inert gas – late this year. The encasement is now being fabricated at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

The encasement is based on a sophisticated engineering design used to house and protect the Charters of Freedom – Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights – also designed and built by NIST.

The project is underwritten by the document’s owner, Mr. Rubenstein, who in June 2011 announced a $13.5 million gift to the Foundation for the National Archives – the single largest Foundation gift to date – to help create a new permanent exhibition gallery and visitor orientation plaza in the National Archives building in Washington, DC. Known as the David M. Rubenstein Gallery and scheduled for completion in 2013, it will showcase Magna Carta and other original documents that chronicle the expansion of human rights across the centuries, adding context to the Charters of Freedom. Magna Carta is scheduled to return to public display in February 2012 adjacent to the Rotunda, where it will await completion of the new Gallery.

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