I have long thought that the best way to make the American people acquainted with the history of their country is to render accessible to them the sources of that history — the raw material as well as the woven narrative.
— James Parton, “the father of American biography,” in a letter to historian Henry B. Dawson, Sept. 20, 1858
Bring your eye as close as the glass will allow, and still the signatures are hard to read. When you look at the text, it is more the memory of the words than the faded script that brings to mind the phrases of the founding documents…
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…
Congress shall make no law …
Once witnessed to by men who risked lives, fortunes and sacred honor for their new nation, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have become the witnesses — and the guideposts — of American history.
They have been out of sight since July of 2001, squirreled away in what Susan Cooper, Archives spokeswoman, calls a “secure location” after painstaking work at the conservation lab at the National Archives facility in College Park.
Now these charters of freedom return in triumph to the National Archives Wednesday after a thorough renovation of its Rotunda.
Which came first, the need to renovate the Rotunda or the need to conserve the documents? It is almost impossible to separate the two tasks, and central to the new plans for the Rotunda was a way to re-encase and show off the charters.
“The Rotunda has a permanent purpose, providing context for and celebrating the charters,” says Director of Museum Programs Marvin Pinkert.
But first the charters themselves had to be taken care of. Periodically, National Archives conservation staff members examine the charters, which were encased in helium-filled cases in 1951. In 1995 Archives conservators discovered crystals congregating on the glass, which over time would make it more and more difficult to view the documents within. Clearly, a newly refurbished Rotunda demanded new encasements for the charters.
Now placed in handsome new frames, with a state-of-the-art fiber optic lighting system and surrounded by the restored 1936 murals of artist Barry Faulkner, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights take pride of place in a new exhibition that brings together a supporting cast of documents that both paved the way to the charters and followed their course in the years to come.
“We are working hard to make sure that people see that these documents live and breathe today,” says John Carlin, Archivist of the United States.
So why bother to troop down to the Archives when all you have to do is look in the back of your child’s U.S. history textbook or type a familiar phrase into your favorite search engine to come up with the same text that you’ll see downtown?
For one thing, there’s the power of the original record.
“You get goose bumps being in the presence of certain things,” says Mr. Carlin. “And the charters are on the short list of ‘certain things.’ ”
Few documents have ever depended so mightily on the power of words and ideas to change history. And to no other set of documents have so many — all over the world — looked for challenge, inspiration, and hope.
“We have in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine, the transplanted Englishman whose 1776 work, “Common Sense,” helped inspire the American Revolution.
And what a world they made, grounded on principles of liberty described in the Declaration, checks on power and abuse — even abuse of liberty — contained in the Constitution, and protections on individual freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
It did not come easily or without sacrifice.
While just about anyone can rattle off a phrase or two from the Declaration of Independence, few know of the risks the 56 signers took to sign it. Some signers saw their homes destroyed and were forced to flee their towns. John Martin of Pennsylvania suffered a breakdown after he was shunned by everyone — including his friends. The wife of Francis Lewis of New York died in prison. And the son of New Jersey’s Abraham Clark, then a prisoner of war on a British prison ship, was singled out and tortured.
But the ideas bubbled up all over the world, as well as here at home.
Abraham Lincoln called the Declaration the “sheet anchor” of American liberties.
“I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentences embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln told a gathering assembled at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in February of 1861.
In much the same way, the Constitution set the tone for the spirit of compromise and conciliation that they hoped their descendants would follow.
For a time, it seemed that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 would return to their homes with nothing at all, despite the weaknesses inherent in the Articles of Confederation.
That’s when Benjamin Franklin asked the delegates to put aside personal reservations and doubt a little of their own infallibility in the spirit of national unity.
“The older I grow” said Franklin, 81, “the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”
Visitors to the National Archives can now see all four pages of the Constitution — previously only three were visible — that resulted after Franklin’s speech (which was actually delivered by another delegate, John Wilson).
And all of the charters will be much easier see thanks to the new, and larger, titanium and aluminum encasements. Within them, the charters “float” in an environment filled with argon gas, which is atomically larger than the helium that had previously filled the cases. This will help minimize leakage and intrusion by insects or other foreign bodies.
Then there is the National Archives building itself. Designed by architect John Russell Pope as a temple dedicated to American history, it is both a piece of and apart from the National Mall. From the beginning, says archivist Rick Blondo, the idea was to present a vision of American history and record keeping that was apolitical and didn’t favor a particular branch of government. It’s why the building is situated halfway between the Capitol and the White House.
For the renovation of the Rotunda, planners worked to incorporate Pope’s vision into an expanded space that would accommodate the handicapped, provide historical context, and incidentally bring those charters down to eye level.
“Had John Russell Pope been in the mind-set of handicapped accessibility, he would have designed a renovation like this,” says Mr. Blondo, walking through new hallways sheeted in stately wood paneling, on floors covered in marble and terrazzo. Even with the changes made to accommodate the handicapped, Mr. Blondo says, the renovation is in keeping with Pope’s conception of a space grand and imposing enough to house the nation’s records.
The Faulkner murals — “The Declaration of Independence” and “The Constitution” — each of which is actually a 35-foot-long painting on canvas that weighs 340 pounds — presented their own challenges. First installed in the Rotunda in 1936, the murals had deteriorated significantly since they were painted in a specially designed studio at New York’s Grand Central Station.
Originally affixed to the plaster walls of the Rotunda with lead paint, the murals became separated from the walls in several places over time. Grime and moisture had done its work, leaving conservators not only with the mammoth job of picking away at plaster and lead paint, but of consolidating what remained.
The old canvas had to be treated carefully to ensure against breakage. The conservators actually earned certification in lead abatement in order to deal with the old adhesive.
They removed the murals using a specialized scaffolding and rigging system designed to fit the curvature of the Rotunda wall. Five conservators painstakingly removed layers of plaster and toxic white lead adhesive while stabilizing the paint layer.
Finally, the murals could be carefully cleaned, revealing the hidden colors, tones, and gradations of the original works. The murals now look as fresh and new as they did 67 years ago.
Getting the charters to the Archives in the first place was hardly as smooth as designing a space to do them justice. In the beginning, not everyone appreciated the power of historical documents. The early builders of the republic were more preoccupied with domestic affairs or foreign policy than in preserving the past — even the charters of freedom.
So where were they?
In the 1790s, the Department of State took charge of the nation’s important documents, including the Declaration and Constitution. They languished in relative obscurity, suffering each time some staffer rolled and re-rolled the precious parchments.
And since at that time the State Department didn’t have a permanent home, the documents were shifted around as the records of the department were shifted. When the British approached Washington in August of 1814, the Declaration and other precious records were unceremoniously bundled into linen bags and housed in a gristmill up the Potomac. The Declaration rode out the remainder of the war in a private home in Leesburg, Va.
After 1841, the Declaration hung in the Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery) opposite a sunny window — for 35 years. In those days, functionaries had so little appreciation of old documents and records that by the end of the 19th century, an overly efficient custodian was apparently disposing of cartloads of historical documents — although thankfully not the Declaration or the Constitution — to Washington area junk dealers.
Finally, in 1921, the Library of Congress took over their care. They spent much of World War II secure from attack or invasion in the impregnable bullion vault at Fort Knox, Ky.
In 1951, the charters, still at the Library of Congress, were sealed in a thermopane enclosure filled with humidified helium — state-of-the art technology at that time designed by the National Bureau of Standards to ensure against deterioration — and the exhibit case was filtered to screen out offending light.
A year later the Declaration and Constitution moved to the National Archives with much fanfare, accompanied by an honor guard of ceremonial troops, marching bands, tanks and servicemen armed with submachine guns.
That, too, is part of the story, say National Archives conservators.
“The whole history of an object is tied up in the life that it has led,” says Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory at the Archives. “We want to stabilize documents, but not make them look like they did when they were new.”
During the recent conservation process, the old helium was pumped out and a new gas, argon, inserted to protect the aging parchment. The documents were carefully cleaned and loose ink was re-adhered.
This time, there won’t be any brass bands when the charters return to the Archives, but that doesn’t mean that those involved in the renovation and conservation project are keeping quiet.
There probably hasn’t been this much excitement at the Archives since — well, practically since it opened to staffers in November of 1935. An invitation-only reception and gala planned for Wednesday will feature speakers from all three branches of government along with Mr. Carlin.
“Were very fortunate,” says Kitty Nicholson, supervisory conservator on the charters project. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
It’s one thing to experience the documents in their original form. It’s another to be able to place them within the national experience. To that end, the National Archives has come up with “the National Archives experience,” a multimedia display that will enable visitors to appreciate how the ideas contained within the charters reverberated through the years. Completion is expected in the fall of 2004.
“The whole space ties together in one story of the charters,” says Director of Museum Programs Marvin Pinkert. “We want to present a strong compelling experience, with the charters as the centerpiece.”
Where else can you see George Washington’s letters, hear sound recordings of Teddy Roosevelt, or look at the homestead application submitted by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family? Interactive computer devices and television screens will allow visitors to enlarge and print out particular documents.
In fact, says Mr. Pinkert, visitors may well find themselves spending the entire day experiencing the National Archives anew.
Future exhibits include a theater, a special exhibition gallery, and a learning center. Meanwhile, a greatly expanded Web site, www.archives.gov, allows those who can’t make it downtown to explore the Archives’ resources on their own.
But if you can, a trip downtown is well worth your time. Now, you can get the whole story, even if you still can’t read all the signatures.
Celebrating the reopening
The National Archives, at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, celebrates the reopening of the Rotunda with three days of extended hours and special activities from Sept. 18 through Sept. 20 from 10 a.m. to midnight. On Sept. 21, the Archives will resume normal winter hours, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
For complete information, see www.archives.gov. Here’s a selection of events, in a schedule that is subject to change:
9:30 a.m.: Arrival of the 216th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, the first 216 guests in line at the National Archives will be invited to join the Archivist of the United States at a special ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Rotunda.
Sept. 18 and 19
10 a.m.-midnight: Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom open for public viewing. The newly re-encased Charters of Freedom will be on display along with a major exhibition of original documents, “A New World is at Hand,” which tells the story of the charters.
7-8 p.m.: Live performances, celebrating the musical holdings of the National Archives, on the Constitution Avenue steps of the National Archives building.
8:30-11:30 p.m.: Patriotic sound and light show on the Constitution Avenue side of the National Archives Building.
10 a.m.-midnight: Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom open for public viewing.
11 a.m.-4 p.m.: Previews of the public vaults and hands-on learning activities, including:
Film Corner: Footage of 4th of July activities, footage of re-encasement of Charters of Freedom from the PBS series “Nova,” film from the National Institute on Standards and Technology about the Charters.
Ask the Expert Corner: Guest speakers from National Archives staff and demonstrations from artisans. Topics covered include restoration of Rotunda murals, preservation of documents, choosing exhibit items, etc.
Hands-on Learning Center: Featuring the Patent Puzzler, Scavenger Hunt and other activities.
Present Meets the Past: Talk with noteworthy historical characters from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Children’s Book Fair: Local authors of children’s books will sign their works. Participants include Kathleen Karr, Ellen Showell, Katherine Paterson, Brenda Seabrooke and many others.
Noon-3 p.m. Archives staff and volunteers will host a tent on F Street, NW as part of the Arts on Foot Festival to highlight the reopening of the Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom.
1-2 p.m., 4-5 p.m., 7-8 p.m.: Live performances, celebrating the musical holdings of the National Archives, on the Constitution Avenue steps of the National Archives Building
8:30-11:30 p.m.: Patriotic sound and light show on Constitution Avenue side of the National Archives Building.
10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.: Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom open for public viewing.
11 a.m.-4 p.m.: Previews of the public vaults and hands-on learning activities. Schedule identical to that of Sept. 20.
1-2 p.m.: Live performances, celebrating the musical holdings of the National Archives, on the Constitution Avenue steps of the National Archives Building
Week of Sept. 22-26
10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily: Education Week, featuring hourly programs for school groups of up to 40 students. Call 202/501-5205 for reservations. Activities relating to the Constitution, and tours of the newly renovated Rotunda and viewing of the Charters of Freedom.