Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 15, 2005


Saving the National Treasures homepage

Never have a few pieces of animal hide been subject to such meticulous and expensive attention. But these aren't just any old pieces of parchment. They are America's priceless Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. On "Saving the National Treasures," NOVA tells how a seemingly simple project became a five-year, multimillion-dollar technological odyssey.

With the newly restored documents now on display at the National Archives, NOVA offers the exclusive behind-the-scenes story of how a team of specialists created the gleaming high-tech encasements for the Charters, which have experienced flaking ink, improper storage, and overexposure to light during their long and sometimes perilous history.

"Saving the National Treasures" not only gives viewers a fascinating glimpse of cutting-edge preservation technology, it also explores the background and meaning of these documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence, whose significance changed over time from a simple catalog of grievances against the English king to a stirring proclamation of the rights of all people.

The Declaration of Independence is also the most imperiled of the founding Charters. Penned with the purpose of officially dissolving colonial ties with Great Britain in 1776, the document led a fugitive existence throughout the American Revolution, traveling from town to town in a strongbox with other records of the Continental Congress, often barely ahead of advancing British troops.

After the Revolution, the Declaration was almost loved to death by the new nation (see The Damage Done). An engraver made a copy in the early 1800s, probably by moistening the original and transferring some of its ink to a clean sheet in order to engrave a copper plate. Later, the original hung for decades opposite a sunny window, further fading the already disappearing text (see Fading Away).

In 1952, the Declaration of Independence was put on display at the National Archives along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—all sealed in airtight enclosures of tinted glass filled with helium gas. The encasements were unsurpassed when they were created, but over time they have developed unanticipated problems. The glass began to deteriorate and form tiny crystals, with unknown effects on the documents inside.

NOVA captures the consultations of a blue-ribbon panel appointed to preserve the Charters using whatever technology necessary. The project goes hand-in-hand with a complete redesign of the Rotunda at the National Archives, where more than one million visitors a year view the documents.

Given the stakes and the range of disciplines represented on the panel—from archivists to conservators to scientists and engineers—there is a healthy debate about what course to take. Will specially milled titanium and aluminum frames hold a vacuum? Should the humidity inside the frames be controlled with silica gel, which has proven trouble free in similar applications? How far should conservators go in repairing physical damage to the Charters? (To hear from the conservators, see A Conservative Approach.)

A riveting moment comes after the decisions are made, the frames are built to perfection, and the team begins the painstaking process of removing the documents from their 1950s mounts and making them ready for their new metal boxes designed to protect against every imaginable natural and human-made disaster. Only then do we see the Declaration of Independence out in the open on a table for the first time in half a century, much as it was over 200 years ago when a group of brave patriots took quills in hand to affix their signatures.

But the crowning moment comes in the refurbished Rotunda, with the Charters of Freedom in their lustrous cases (see Case Closed), as new American citizens from every corner of the globe swear allegiance, not to a ruler or a piece of geography but to a set of ideas—words written with quills on the skins of animals, more than two centuries ago.

Back to top

tk

A detail from the original Declaration of Independence reveals the wear and tear of more than 225 years of being greatly treasured.




Saving the National Treasures
Fading Away

Fading Away
We've all seen materials damaged by light. But what's actually happening?

A Conservative Approach

A Conservative Approach
Conservators on the light touch they used to treat the Charters of Freedom.

The Damage Done

The Damage Done
On this high-resolution image, closely examine the time-worn Declaration.

Case Closed

Case Closed
Explore the special Charter encasement in this interactive 3-D animation.



Program Transcript

Program Credits



Send Feedback Image Credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site