National Archives Exhibition Gallery Shows Magna Carta

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero and co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group David M. Rubenstein have unveiled the newly restored and encased 1297 Magna Carta, which is on loan to the American people by Mr. Rubenstein.

The National Archives partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on the exacting design and fabrication of the encasement. At the unveiling, National Archives deputy director of the conservation laboratory Kitty Nicholson and NIST design engineer Jay Brandenburg described in detail the process of conserving and encasing Magna Carta.

National Archives conservators performed an intensive examination and conservation treatment of Magna Carta in 2011. In the course of the treatment, ultra-violet photography revealed previously illegible writing that had been obliterated by water damage at some unknown time in the past.

Experience gained from the 2001-2003 treatment of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, was applied to the conservation treatment, and encasement of the Magna Carta.

The only original Magna Carta permanently in the United States was taken off display in 2011 to undergo conservation treatment and to be re-encased. National Archives conservators examined and stabilized the parchment before placing it in a new state-of-the-art encasement. This new enclosure, designed and fabricated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is based on an original design used to protect the Charters of Freedom, which were re-encased in 2003. The new exhibition will open to the public on February 17, 2012.

Only four originals of the 1297 Magna Carta remain. By the 17th century, the one displayed at the National Archives was in the possession of the Brudenell family, the earls of Cardigan. It was acquired by the Perot Foundation in 1984 and purchased by David M. Rubenstein in 2007. Mr. Rubenstein loaned Magna Carta to the National Archives as a gift to the American people.

In 1215 on the plains of Runnymede an assembly of barons confronted the despotic King John of England and demanded that traditional rights be recognized, written down, confirmed with the royal seal, and sent to each of the counties to be read to all freemen. King John agreed, binding himself and his heirs to grant “to all freemen of our kingdom” the rights and liberties described in the great charter, or Magna Carta.

Between 1215 and 1297, Magna Carta was reissued by each of King John’s successors. To meet his debts from foreign wars, King Edward I imposed new and harsher taxes in 1297. This provoked another confrontation between the king and the barons, resulting not only in the reissue of Magna Carta, but for the first time its entry into the official Statute Rolls of England. The 1297 document represents the transition of Magna Carta from a brokered agreement to the foundation of English law.

For a behind the scenes look at this highly technical and exacting process, see two mini-documentaries produced by the National Archives: http://tiny.cc/MAGNACARTA, and http://tiny.cc/MAGNACARTA2.

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