In 2011, senior conservators Morgan Zinsmeister and Terry Boone of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), thoroughly documented, conserved, and encased a copy of Magna Carta that dates to 1297. During his presentation at AIC’s 41st Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Zinsmeister recounted the project. His presentation, which I’ve summarized in this post, beautifully illustrated the measures taken by NARA conservators to preserve documents and artifacts so essential to the history of our nation.
First drafted by a gang of rebellious barons in 1215, Magna Carta asserted the individual and property rights of its authors in opposition to the tyranny of King John of England (1166-1216). This document also addressed the fundamental principles of majority rule and due process that would prove essential to later charters. Magna Carta served as a precedent to the British Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and U.S. Constitution.
Between 1216 and 1297, Magna Carta was reissued four times and copied many more. Today, 17 extant copies are known: 15 in the United Kingdom, one in Australia, and one in the United States, that is the copy conserved and exhibited at NARA courtesy of its current owner, David M. Rubenstein.
Magna Carta, 1297 is written Latin with iron gall ink and metal-point ruling on parchment. A sur double queue wax seal with parchment tag served as a closure. When the document was removed from its previous encasement–an anoxic acrylic case designed by Dr. Nathan Stolow at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin–it was closely monitored for change as parchment is extremely sensitive to moisture and fluctuations in relative humidity. Once removed, Magna Carta was examined closely and its condition documented. It was during this examination period that conservators made the happy discovery that a portion of the text previously obliterated by water damage was made legible again through photography using ultraviolet radiation. To learn more about this discovery, see a past blog post by AIC’s own E-editor Rachael Perkins Arenstein.
Following thorough examination and documentation, a three-step treatment was devised that included removal of previous mends, reduction of adhesive residues, and humidification and flattening of the document in preparation for re-encasement. Magna Carta was first selectively surface cleaned. Next, adhesive residues were carefully reduced, old repairs removed, and acrylic-toned, handmade kozo (long-fibered mulberry paper) used to create new fills and repair tears. Prior to humidification and flattening, transparent polyester film was used to make outline tracings of Magna Carta to document any dimensional changes that might occur during treatment. Humidification was carried out using the damp-pack method and the document was dried under tension for several months to allow the moisture content of the parchment to reach equilibrium.
The tight environmental control required to preserve Magna Carta lead NARA staff to partner with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in designing the new encasement. Together, NARA and NIST developed an anoxic (without oxygen) display that inhibits oxidative degradation to preserve the document as long as possible. A perfect collaboration!
To create the new encasement, NARA drew upon past experiences housing important documents and applied lessons learned from encasement of the Charters of Freedom: the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. Magna Carta was scanned and its exact profile obtained to produce a custom support that would eliminate any strain to the document and protect it from damaging vibrations. A special paper with high alpha-cellulose content created by Timothy Barrett was used as a barrier between the document and the encasement’s metal support. Ultimately, this paper serves two functions: it works as a buffer to help maintain the desired relative humidity within the encasement and as a sort of non-invasive optical brightener. The whiteness of the paper barrier combined with the parchment’s translucency actually caused the document appear more luminous! Polyester film tabs with rounded edges hold the document in place. The encasement is fitted with o-rings to create a tight seal and a leak-detection system. Once sealed, the air trapped inside the case was flushed out using the inert, humidified argon gas to create an oxygen-free environment.
In March 2012, Magna Carta, 1297 was re-installed in NARA’s West Rotunda where it remains on view. When we take a moment to reflect upon the important role that historic documents like Magna Carta play in telling the story of a nation, their preservation becomes unquestionable and the essential nature of the conservator’s work is underscored. Thanks to the amazing work of NARA conservators Morgan Zinsmeister and Terry Boone, their collaborators at NIST, and David M. Rubenstein who brought the document to NARA and underwrote its treatment and encasement, the Magna Carta will be preserved for the education and enjoyment of many generations of visitors to come.
To learn more about the exciting story of Magna Carta’s preservation, visit NARA’s website or YouTube channel to view videos on the treatment and the encasement.