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We the people can see proof

The Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence were out of public view for two years. The documents were cleaned and restored and are ready for visitors at the National Archives.

By Associated Press
Published September 17, 2003

WASHINGTON - The original Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, locked away for two years for treatment to ensure their longevity, are going back on display in state-of-the-art cases.

And for the first time, all four pages of the Constitution will be on permanent display. Previously, just the first and last pages had been on exhibit at the National Archives.

The documents, displayed at the Archives since 1952, were shielded from the public when the building's enormous marble and limestone rotunda was closed to tourists on July 5, 2001, for renovations. The documents were then given a careful review, the first close examination of the three pieces of history in half a century.

President Bush will help unveil the new exhibit today, along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and congressional leaders. On Thursday, the rotunda will open to the public.

John Carlin, archivist of the National Archives and a former Kansas governor, thinks the newly remodeled rotunda and remounted documents will help convey their historical significance.

"We want people to have a real experience coming here," Carlin said. "We want them to come away with feelings about the importance of records, the importance of these documents."

The new exhibit will be much more user-friendly. For example, the Declaration of Independence was mounted high on a wall in the previous exhibit, making it hard to read.

Now, it will be housed in an exhibit case on the ground. So too will the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, allowing the documents to be more accessible to people in wheelchairs and small children.

The historical originals are showing their age a bit, with yellowing around the edges of the parchment. But the documents, known collectively as the Charters of Freedom, underwent an extensive restoration process over the last two years.

Some flakes of ink from the charters had begun to curl and lift upward, said Catherine Nicholson, senior conservator at the Archives. The conservation team inserted super-small droplets of adhesive under the flakes to reattach the ink to the parchment.

State-of-the-art encasements for the documents also were built. The new cases, outlined in 24-karat gold-plated titanium, are filled with argon, an inert gas that helps preserve the documents, said Rick Judson, the project engineer.

The glass in the cases also won't rest directly on the documents, as it had before.

Experts also renovated two large murals by Barry Faulkner. They depict the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and James Madison presenting his final draft of the Constitution to George Washington.

The cost for the renovation of the charters and the re-encasements was $4.8-million, Judson said. Archives staff could not provide an estimate for the rotunda refurbishment, but the total tally for the ongoing renovation of the National Archives building is more than $100-million.


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