ALAN CALMES (National Archives and Records Administration): The most exciting thing about this project is how complicated it is.
MARVIN SHENKLER (National Archives and Records Administration): We are in the process of trying to cram the proverbial 10 pounds of horse manure into the five-pound bag.
NARRATOR: It is a project that, at times, seemed to rival, in complexity, sending men to the moon. It took five years, cutting-edge science, millions of dollars and endless discussion.
ALAN CALMES: If you want to put something in there...
MARVIN SHENKLER: There's nothing in there. It's just an opening.
ALAN CALMES: ...for some reason that's yet to be discovered. It hasn't been discovered why you'd why you want to use it.
SHAUN BENSON-FRAZIER (HEERY International - Project Manager): That's kind of disturbing.
NARRATOR: The result of all this effort? Nine metal boxes, in effect, large picture frames. What are these boxes for? What would justify this massive effort? In fact, they are destined to contain the most valued treasures this country has ever produced, a few pieces of parchment: the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Together, they define the structure of our government and the ideals of our nation. They have been called the "Charters of Freedom."
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION -VISITOR 1 (boy): I think it is great to see what it really looks like, instead just seeing it in a book.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION VISITOR 2 (girl): To actually see it yourself, like, the original...you don't really have the opportunity to do that every day.
NARRATOR: They were written in the heat of war and during the battle for the establishment of the new nation, but over the next 150 years, the Charters, particularly the Declaration, became creased and torn; the words faded.
In 1995, conservators began a heroic effort to prevent further deterioration. Can these documents, the birth certificates of the nation, be preserved? Saving The National Treasures, right now on NOVA.
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NARRATOR: Every day of the year, except Christmas, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are on display in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. To shield them from the damaging effects of light, they are displayed in a dimly lit room and covered with green-tinted glass. Over one million visitors come to see these documents every year.
The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights lay out the structure of our government. They are the supreme law of the land. But the centerpiece, the most beloved of the Charters, the one that everyone comes to see, is the Declaration of Independence. Unlike the other documents, it does not define the form of our government, but as an expression of some of the most profound ideals of the country, it is the most revered.
ACTOR (Reading from the Declaration of Independence): When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
NARRATOR: The Declaration is being composed in the heat of battle. The British are arriving with hundreds of ships and thousands of soldiers. The American colonies are under attack. The Declaration of Independence not only announces the formation of a new nation, it is a declaration of war. A scribe copies it onto parchment.
In this time of great danger, members of Congress decide to sign, to actually put their names to the document. In doing this, they are marking themselves as traitors to England and will be hanged if captured.
Today, the signatures of those courageous men have mostly disappeared. The Declaration is torn and dirty, its ink badly faded, almost to invisibility. If it weren't for a hungry insect in the 1940s, the Declaration could be in even worse shape. It was housed in a case at the Library of Congress along with the U.S. Constitution. Carroll Creitz was a scientist working for the government.
CARROLL CREITZ (worked at the National Bureau of Standards - now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST - on the 1952 encasement project): Well, one day they inspected it and they found a dead buffalo bug down in the bottom corner of the case. And there was a place where the buffalo bug had been eating out of the edge of the parchment.
NARRATOR: Carroll Creitz worked on the design and manufacture of a set of hermetically sealed cases to protect the documents from further deterioration. They were covered with two layers of special glass, and the air inside was replaced with helium, an inert gas that won't interact with parchment. Sealed shut, with no provisions for ever reopening them, it was believed that these encasements would safeguard the documents for centuries.
In 1952, with great ceremony, President Harry Truman dedicated their new home at the National Archives.
HARRY S. TRUMAN (President of the United States, 1945-1953): Here, so far as is humanly possible, they will be protected from disaster and from the ravages of time.
NARRATOR: It was the height of the Cold War, and every night the documents descended 20 feet down into a vault designed to withstand all natural and manmade disasters, even an atomic bomb. This was cutting-edge technology when it was created, but now, only 50 years later, the cases themselves are developing problems.
Examining the cases with microscopes, conservators can see subtle changes. Chemical reactions are causing the glass itself to deteriorate. Tiny crystals are forming on the surface, a process known as crizzling.
JOHN CARLIN (Archivist of the United States): There appeared crystals. And it was feared that the crystals might be growing, and this could lead to some really serious problems with the glass and its proximity to the parchment, the Charters themselves.
NARRATOR: As the documents move up and down in its mechanism, there is a fear that vibrations are abrading their delicate surfaces. This starts the conservators wondering what else might be going on inside these aging sealed encasements. Has the helium leaked out? Are the documents surrounded by the proper humidity? Perhaps the very encasements, which had been so elaborately designed to protect these precious documents, might actually be damaging them. Something has to be done.
JOHN CARLIN: Given the timeframes that you have to operate in government, in terms of getting appropriations and follow through, we didn't have a lot of time to waste.
NARRATOR: A high-powered team is assembled: physicists, chemists, engineers, conservators, all world-class experts in their fields. Each person on the team has a particular specialty.
NATHAN STOLOW (Design Consultant): The top framing goes right up to the edge of the document.
NARRATOR: Nathan Stolow designed the cases for many important documents including the Gettysburg Address and the Magna Carta.
NATHAN STOLOW: The side panels are reducing the dimensions all around.
Well, this is a very important national project, and, of course, a lot of people from the Archives and other agencies of government and scientists of renown are involved, to make sure that we get it all right.
CHRIS EVANS (National Institute of Standards and Technology): And you assume that since the document's on a tilt, the convention currents are going to go...
NARRATOR: Chris Evans is an engineer working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This is the agency that tells us, among other things, the exact length of a second and the weight of a pound. N.I.S.T., which has some of the most precise manufacturing and measuring tools in the world, will be making the cases.
DON ETHRINGTON (Consultant, expert in parchment preservation): The one thing I wanted to...
NARRATOR: The Charters are all written on parchment, the cured skin of a sheep or cow. Don Ethrington is a world expert on the preservation of parchment.
DON ETHRINGTON: It's not attached to anything. It's placed on a platform, because we don't want to introduce any adhesives, and no real restraints, because if you restrain parchment, it wants to move. It wants to get back on the animal, if you like.
NARRATOR: Extraordinary talent assembled to build what are, in effect, large picture frames. The project will take five years and cost almost five million dollars. No effort will be spared, because these cases will protect our nation's most precious documents.
And precious, indeed, is a 30 by 24 inch piece of parchment, the Declaration of Independence. The history of this one document is, in a very real sense, the history of our country.
July, 1776: war has begun. The Continental Congress appoints a committee including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Their job: to draft a proclamation announcing that the colonies are separating from England.
The committee, in turn, appoints the young Thomas Jefferson to actually write the document. After much editing and many revisions, the Declaration of Independence is made public.
At first, it only exists in printed form, in newspapers and pamphlets. It is widely distributed, posted and read aloud, so that Americans will understand this momentous decision. Then the Continental Congress prepares a more formal handwritten copy on parchment. This is the document that they sign.
PAULINE MAIER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Look, they were fighting a war. They used just parchment they could get at some store in Philadelphia. It wasn't that they went out to see if they could get the best parchment available. This was an announcement of an important decision, but it wasn't going to mean anything unless they won that war.
NARRATOR: The Declaration of Independence has two parts. The first part, the ringing phrases we remember today...
ACTOR (Reading from the Declaration of Independence): We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...
NARRATOR: ...was, for Congress, merely an introduction. Similar to the beginning of the Virginia state constitution, its words espoused the fashionable ideals of the enlightenment. But, for the founders, the meat of the document was the inventory of grievances against King George III...
ACTOR (Reading from the Declaration of Independence): He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws...
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone...
He has kept among us...Standing Armies without the consent of our Legislature.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns...
NARRATOR: ...a very long list, which we have almost forgotten today.
CAROL BERKIN (Baruch College - The City University of New York): The important parts of the Declaration are, in modern terms, the bullet points of, "this is what the king has done that justifies the revolution." Of course, today, that part is...if it's known about at all, no one can name anything in it, except perhaps they might say, "No taxation without representation." The Americans weren't hotheads. They only advocated independence from a king if you could prove—good lawyers that many of them were—that they had a strong, airtight case against him. And so for them, that was the critical part of the Declaration.
NARRATOR: During the long war, the Declaration of Independence is repeatedly rolled up and thrown into trunks, along with other government records, and moves every time Congress moves. And Congress moves frequently during the Revolution, trying to avoid capture by the British Army. From Philadelphia to Lancaster, then to York, Pennsylvania and finally back to Philadelphia.
CAROL BERKIN: In the rush of wartime, when supplies were scarce, when the work that the Congress had to do was overwhelming to everyone, this document was probably not seen in their minds as something that would live forever in history. They made a bad guess.
NARRATOR: The challenge today is how to preserve this badly deteriorated piece of parchment for many centuries to come. To protect it, the designers of the encasements must understand the properties of this ancient writing material.
Parchment starts out as skin, usually the hide of a sheep or a cow. The skin is soaked for weeks in lime and then the hair and flesh is carefully scraped away. After it has been stretched and dried for weeks, the result is a thin and perfectly smooth writing surface. But it is skin, and all skin is damaged by the environment.
We spend millions on sunblock, anti-oxidants and moisturizers to protect our skin, but ultimately the aging process takes over.
With parchment as well, ultra-violet rays, oxygen and fluctuations in humidity all wreak havoc. But with the proper protection, parchment's deterioration can be virtually stopped. That is the job of the new encasements.
The new encasements will be made up of a few basic parts. There will be a base milled out of a single block of aluminum, with pockets cut out to reduce weight while maintaining rigidity. A platform will hold pure cellulose paper and the document. The front of the case will consist of a piece of clear, colorless glass, incorporating a special coating to reduce reflections, and a titanium frame. The frame, glass and base will be held together with bolts. Finally, the air inside the case will be replaced with argon, an inert, colorless gas which will not react with parchment.
One year into the project, the basic design of the encasements has been established. But many crucial decisions have yet to be made. Today the group is debating a particularly contentious issue: one of the critical concerns in the preservation of parchment is humidity. In all the other cases that he has designed, Nathan Stolow has used silica gel to hold the level of humidity constant.
NATHAN STOLOW: Silica gel is used in many encasements all around the world for the last 30 or 40 years and has been proven to be trouble free and very good at maintaining humidity control.
NARRATOR: Silica is the same material that you sometimes find in the packaging of electronic equipment. In these encasements, Stolow is proposing that chambers be built into the base of the cases to hold the gel. He argues that the gel will maintain a constant humidity in the case by absorbing moisture when the atmosphere is too wet and releasing moisture when it's very dry. But other members of the team question the need for silica in the completely airtight enclosure they are proposing.
ALAN CALMES: The experience in using absorbers has been for leaky boxes, where the relative humidity has to be maintained by something inside the encasement, but inside of an airtight box, the situation is a little different.
NARRATOR: The argument hinges on the question, can the team build a truly airtight box? One with such a perfect seal that virtually no air will ever leak into the enclosure for centuries to come?
To achieve this proposed airtight seal the contact between the glass and the base must be absolutely perfect. The challenge for the engineers at N.I.S.T.: to polish the metal of the base so that it becomes absolutely smooth, completely flat even at a microscopic level.
Guided by a computer, a sharpened diamond slowly moves across the base, producing a mirror finish on the metal. It takes an additional eight hours of hand polishing to get the seal surface perfectly smooth. But when it is checked under a special microscope, an imperfection shows up. Only a few microns in diameter, it looks like a huge pit and must be re-worked.
In theory the cases are airtight, but the glass and the metal must continue to maintain their perfect contact, even under the most extreme conditions. If the seal doesn't hold, it will be back to the drawing board.
Today, a punishing test: the encasements must be able to protect the documents even if Washington were struck by a severe tornado causing a drastic change in atmospheric pressure. This one hit just 30 miles from the National Archives.
A sudden change in air pressure can cause a building to explode. In order to simulate this effect, the engineers have put the model into an airtight drum. The drum will be sealed, then the pressure inside the drum gradually altered, and the effect on the encasement carefully observed.
ENGINEER #1: Maybe if I tell it "record" it won't keep shutting off.
CHRIS EVANS: Hang on, guys. Let's not get too excited until we've got the lid down.
NARRATOR: A tiny camera inside the drum allows the group to watch what's going on. The test today will push the case to its absolute limits, to see how much pressure it will take to break the seal and to determine at what point the glass will crack.
Pressure on the case increases; the instruments indicate that the glass is starting to flex.
CHRIS EVANS: Well the good new is the laws of physics still apply.
RICHARD RHORER (National Institute of Standards and Technology): The bad news is that the glass hasn't broken.
CHRIS EVANS: But the base is bending.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON (Conservator, National Archives and Records Administration): It really is.
CHRIS EVANS: I am assuming, with tempered glass, it will go like the windshield on your car goes.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: What was it at?
CHRIS EVANS: Around 50.
RICHARD RHORER: 46.2.
ENGINEER 1 (National Institute of Standards and Technology): ...on the meter, but then you have to add...
ENGINEER 2 (National Institute of Standards and Technology): That's impressive. That is really impressive.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: This was a very extreme test. What it means is that you can't take one of these sealed-in cases up in an airplane and you can't drop them in a deep body of water, but we are not planning actually to do either of those things for other reasons.
NARRATOR: The encasement passes its first big test. The seal between the metal and glass held until the glass itself broke. And before breaking, it withstood four times as much pressure as the specifications required, and much tougher conditions than it would ever experience in the real world.
Since the encasement seems to be truly airtight, there will be no need for Nathan Stolow's silica gel.
Always looking for ways to make the cases smaller and lighter, some members of the committee suggest that the chambers that were to hold this gel be eliminated.
NATHAN STOLOW: That's ridiculous, really.
NARRATOR: The argument is becoming heated.
MARVIN SHENKLER: But we ought to leave a chamber in there for something that we may want to do in the future, for something that somebody else, after us, might want to do in the future.
ALAN CALMES: I just can't agree with that logic.
MARVIN SHENKLER: You're not designing protection for physical problems that we envision now. We are designing for problems that are going to occur in 30, 40 years.
ALAN CALMES: I disagree. That is a mistaken assumption. You want to put something in there...
MARVIN SHENKLER: There's nothing in there.
ALAN CALMES:...for some reason that's yet to be discovered. It hasn't been discovered why you want to use it.
MARVIN SHENKLER: Well, we'll try and figure out what the volume difference is.
NARRATOR: Opinion remains divided, but the final say is in the hands of a Scientific Advisory board which is insisting that the chambers be removed.
NATHAN STOLOW: I think it is unfair to have a group of advisors at the top—no matter how illustrious they are—to say "the design shall be such-and-such." They will not face the...just a minute...they will not face the responsibility. If something goes wrong, the designers will take the crap.
SHAUN BENSON-FRAZIER: We've got too many different parties working on different schedules and agendas. And to hear now, at this point, that sorbent is in or out, that's kind of disturbing. If we're trying to meet a schedule that we are contracted to we're not going to make it.
NARRATOR: Removing the chambers inside the encasements is a big change. A whole new testing model will have to be constructed, and that will take months.
But preservation of the founding documents is not on the minds of Americans in the years following the Revolution. The founding fathers, however, are becoming mythologized, almost as gods. Soon their words and everything they had touched come to be regarded with near mystical reverence, especially the Declaration of Independence, which bears their signatures.
PAULINE MAIER: After the war of 1812, new generations of Americans came into authority. These were the children of the revolutionaries. Independence and the Constitution were the achievements of their fathers, and they wanted to preserve that record. They collected the documents, which were scattered, which were being lost. They went out and interviewed survivors of the Revolution so those memories wouldn't be lost. They were dedicated to preserving the record of the Revolution, which they regarded with almost religious fervor.
NARRATOR: As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson is obsessed with promoting his own legacy. He encourages the famous artist, John Trumbull, to paint this fictional scene of the signing. In reality, the document was signed over the course of a year, long after the assembled delegates had gone home.
Jefferson's efforts are highly successful: the Declaration of Independence, which was primarily a long list of grievances against the king, now becomes the defining symbol of a heroic age.
PAULINE MAIER: It is at this point, that the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, commissioned a facsimile of the original document by the engraver, William Stone. The process Stone used is controversial. He may well have used a wet pressing process.
What this involves is taking a very thin piece of paper, putting it over the surface of the original document so that it will pick up the image by literally absorbing some of the ink. You have a mirror image of the document which was then put on a copper plate and carefully etched into the plate, so that he could print a copy of the Declaration of Independence that was as close as human beings at that time were capable of making. What we know of the Declaration of Independence, the image in our minds, is not the original document, it's the Stone facsimile.
NARRATOR: The printed reproduction only increases people's fascination with the original document. They want to see the actual parchment signed by the founders. In 1841, it is put on permanent display in this building, formerly the Patent Office, now the National Portrait Gallery. It hangs on a wall facing the direct sun. And there it remains for decades slowly fading into near invisibility.
It isn't the fault of the ink. Eighteenth century ink is an extraordinarily durable substance, which brings us, surprisingly enough, to a wasp.
The main ingredient of the ink is produced when a wasp lays her eggs in the bark of an oak tree, which forms a nodule or gall. Galls are rich in a chemical called tannic acid, a substance that is also used to tan leather. Since Roman times, it was known that if you crush these galls to a powder and mix them with iron sulfate, it will react chemically to produce a deep, black, indelible ink.
Properly preserved, documents written with iron gall ink can last for centuries. For example, this is the Magna Carta, a document penned in 1215—establishing the rights of English freemen—and a precursor to our Constitution. Eight hundred years old, its writing is still vivid today. The reason? For most of that time, it was kept hidden away in a cool, dark place.
But the Charters of Freedom must be out on display, exposed to light 10 hours a day, 364 days a year. This would be hard on any written document, and that is why the design of these new encasements is so critical.
The cases are part of a larger project, a major redesign of the Rotunda at the National Archives where the documents will be displayed. The heavy green glass will be gone, the lighting will be improved, and the Declaration will be down off its altar and much easier to see.
Marvin Shenkler is supervising the redesign.
MARVIN SHENKLER: The current thinking is the Declaration of Independence will be on the left of the center, in the center will be the four pages of the Constitution, and on the right will be the Bill of Rights.
This is a particularly difficult space to work with because one of the biggest issues we had to deal with is handicapped accessibility. So our solution was to take the steps out and lower the cases to the same floor elevation as the rest of the Rotunda.
This is the one and only prototype. This is our one and only shot at getting this right. Once it's fabricated, it's too late, so if we've messed up here, we're in big trouble.
NARRATOR: 1861: the Civil War. As important as the Declaration of Independence was to the founding generation, it becomes even more significant during this country's greatest crisis. President Lincoln becomes committed to abolishing slavery and needs the moral force of a founding document to justify his position. But neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, the two documents which establish the political framework of the United States, contain any assertions of equality.
PAULINE MAIER: Neither of them says that all men are created or born equal. Neither of them says that men have certain inherent rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If those ideas were important to you, if you wanted a document to give them legitimacy, the only document they had was the Declaration of Independence. So the Declaration took on a whole new life and a whole new function as a statement of our liberties.
NARRATOR: The founders had considered the essential part of the Declaration of Independence to be that long list of complaints against King George III. But during the Civil War, the country's leaders turn to the preamble, those noble sounding words about equality with absolutely no legal authority.
CAROL BERKIN: The Declaration of Independence is reborn in the 19th century—particularly with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War—is reborn as a ringing condemnation of slavery and as a ringing set of principles for America to live up to in terms of egalitarianism.
ROGER WILKINS (George Mason University): By the time the Gettysburg consecration occurred, the war had dragged on and was just horrifying. There had to be some greater moral reason than just to keep the union together. And so Lincoln reframed the founding and said that, uh, our fathers had created "on this continent, a new nation...dedicated to the proposition that all men" were created equal." And they were now engaged in a battle to see whether a nation "so conceived and so dedicated" could "long endure." He made the Civil War a fight for the freedom of black people, and by doing so, he had to change the meaning of the founding.
NARRATOR: A document, which, earlier in the century, had sentimental value because it was signed by the founders, is transformed during the Civil War into a document with real moral authority, an expression of the ideals of the nation.
ACTOR (Reading from the Declaration of Independence): We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...
WORKER (National Archives and Records Administration): Coming down.
NARRATOR: July, 2001: the documents descend into the vault for the last time. The Rotunda closes for renovation.
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights leave the National Archives building to be transported to a secret location. There they will be examined, repaired and put in the new encasements.
For the purpose of security, special trucks with an extra sensitive suspension system will make many trips, sometimes carrying some of the documents and sometimes carrying empty packing boxes, decoys. For this operation, the Declaration has been given a special code name, Elvis.
The last time they had been moved, half a century ago, the documents in their then state-of-the-art encasements had been delivered to the National Archives with great ceremony.
Carroll Creitz was there. As a young man he worked on the original encasements and was present when they were soldered shut.
CARROLL CREITZ: The sealing of the Declaration went very smoothly, and it took all day. The guy that did the soldering did a real nice job. It was beautiful. I wished I could solder like he could.
NARRATOR: The head of Collections for the Library of Congress, Alvin Kremer supervised the work.
CARROLL CREITZ: Mr. Kremer started going over the Declaration inch by inch. And down in the lower right hand corner he suddenly reared back with a consternation all over his face and said, "There's a hair in the enclosure." Well, we all gathered around, and sure enough, there was a hair in the enclosure. But you had to look twice to see it.
NARRATOR: A hole was drilled in the side of the encasement and the offending hair was removed. Then the encasement was re-soldered shut, as they believed at the time, sealed forever.
"Elvis" has arrived. Home, for the next two years, is a highly secure room, dust-free, equipped with special lighting, temperature and humidity controls. Here, the documents will be painstakingly examined and restored.
Elissa O'Loughlin, Kitty Nicholson, and Marylynn Ritzenthaler, conservators for the National Archives, have the unenviable task of figuring out how to open cases that were soldered shut 50 years earlier. There is no instruction manual.
ELISSA O'LOUGHLIN (Conservator, National Archives and Records Administration): It doesn't really want to cut in quite the same way as the strip.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: It's, it's really different mechanics because it's...
NARRATOR: They begin with what is considered to be the least important of the documents, the transmittal page of the Constitution, essentially a cover letter. Elissa has created a special tool for the process. It functions rather like a can opener.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER (Conservator, National Archives and Records Administration): It theoretically seems that it would be pretty easy.
ELISSA O'LOUGHLIN (Conservator, National Archives and Records Administration): It's really going to be a process of scraping the stuff away until we hit glass.
ELISSA O'LOUGHLIN: We were going to be doing it blind with the other one....
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: Uh-huh.
NARRATOR: Every shard and scrap is saved; even the helium has been extracted and stored. Every step of the operation is photographed. Meticulous records are kept. These are, after all, conservators.
ELISSA O'LOUGHLIN: It is almost like butter.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: It's like very cold butter.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: I've got sharp edges.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: Yeah, I'm resting on the glass.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: Are we going to rest it on the blotter?
NARRATOR: With the outer glass removed, the delicate job of lifting the second piece of glass begins—the one that is resting directly on the document.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: There is something attached, I heard something pop.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: No, it was just a little click, I believe. You know, we've been talking about, lifting it up at an angle, but if there's no evidence that it's sticking, it might be easier to then just do a lift off.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: I think we could, yeah.
NARRATOR: The crizzling is quite evident, a snowstorm of tiny crystals on the surface of the glass.
The opening of this first, less important, document is complete. Now the conservators must unseal the remaining cases, carefully examine each document, and make needed repairs.
The renovation of the Rotunda has been underway for a year and a half. At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the production of the encasements is forging ahead. In futuristic machines, a 600-pound block of aluminum is transformed by computer guided tools into a finely crafted 40-pound base. The frames are milled from the ultra-strong metal, titanium. Finally, they are electroplated in gold.
It takes three years to unseal, examine and restore all the pages of Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The experts have established that the crizzling of the glass had not damaged either of those documents. They are in remarkably good condition.
But what about the fragile and faded Declaration of Independence? The conservators have deliberately saved the most crucial document for the end. They know that this one piece of parchment will test all their years of training and experience.
Exposed to the air for the first time in 50 years, the document can finally be seen directly, without the interference of several layers of glass. Every inch of parchment back and front will be inspected. The size, the thickness, every crease, crack and tear is measured and carefully noted, valuable information for future conservators.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: Eighteenth line: the word "obstruction."
CATHERINE NICHOLSON:Yeah, and we're going to have to count down six.
NARRATOR: Every letter of every word microscopically examined.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: There's hardly any ink left. It's as though it was washed away. The ink, really, is just a memory here.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: Lots and lots of little horizontal creases, lines. These are very characteristic of having been rolled.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: The intimation of the handprint.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: We've been aware of this print. It's...
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: Yeah.
NARRATOR: A mysterious handprint from the past—no one knows who made it or when.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: It certainly stands out.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: The signatures in the center are very...difficult to see original ink.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: So the John Hancock...even without magnification, it is pretty obvious that there's a coloration.
NARRATOR: It appears as if someone in the 19th century has tried to restore some of the faded signatures by re-inking them, including the most famous of them all, that of John Hancock.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: There's a sense of having been fused with yellowish green quality in the J and the H and the K.
NARRATOR: In the past, restorers would try to bring a document back to its original condition, even to the extent of replacing missing text. This is what the person who inked over Hancock's signature was trying to do.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: I wonder if they just did those three large letters.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: That's certainly what it looks like.
NARRATOR: Today, there is a totally different approach. Conservators focus their efforts on preventing further deterioration, but other restoration is kept to a minimum.
CATHERIBE NICHOLSON: You can really see it's a branch complex tear. I think the entire corner was pretty much detached. That was really the worst.
NARRATOR: The conservators decide on only one small restoration: to mend this edge, which is located near an old tear, an already fragile part of the parchment.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: I want to both trace and shape this piece of Japanese tissue paper to fill in that loss. And I'm going to do it in such a way that I have the full thickness of the paper where there is no parchment. And then it is pared away to create a very gradual overlap.
One of the guiding principles of modern conservation is reversibility, so we'll use adhesives that we know we can re-dissolve. And we always try and do it in a way that, should your successor need to undo it, it can be undone.
NARRATOR: Apart from this repair and some light surface cleaning, over the next two months, the conservators will continue to meticulously examine and photograph this document and nothing more. The creases and fading, the tears and even the dirt have all become a part of its story.
PAULINE MAIER: That's the history of the document. The document is faded legitimately. It was rolled up and dragged from place to place. It was subject to William Stone's wet pressing process. It was hung across from a bright window in the Patent Office for 35 years. This document has a right to be faded.
MARTIN LUTHER KING (Civil Rights Leader, file footage OF 1963 March on Washington): I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:...
NARRATOR: August, 1963: Martin Luther King stands beside the Lincoln memorial and calls for the new birth of freedom that Lincoln had promised, a freedom that for King means an end to discrimination and segregation, a freedom that means liberty and justice for all.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: ..."We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
ROGER WILKINS: As a black youngster, I knew that somewhere it was written that the United States proclaimed that all men were created equal. I didn't know where it was, but I knew it. And I knew someplace it was written that the laws were supposed to apply to everybody, equally. I didn't know where, but I knew someplace it was.
CAROL BERKIN: The Declaration of Independence, in many ways, is more alive today, broader and more idealistic a document than it was when it was originally written. As we have moved into civil rights movements, women's rights movements, Native American rights movements, gay liberation movements, as we've moved into a very rich periods of trying to establish an all-inclusive body politic, an all-inclusive citizenship, then the ringing words, "all men are created equal" become vital and critical in a way that I think Jefferson would have been astounded, because he certainly did not envision a world in which his African-American slaves would be going into the voting booth beside him. And, even more so, he did not envision a world in which his daughter or his wife would go into a voting booth. So I think he would be stunned at what has become of this, uh, little phrase of his.
NARRATOR: May, 2003: the Declaration of Independence is being placed in its new encasement. Masks and gowns insure that no offending hairs will slip into the display. Behind ultra-clear glass and with an improved lighting system, even this badly faded document will be much more visible to the millions of visitors who will come to see it.
MARYLYNN RITZENTHALER: Looks beautiful.
CATHERINE NICHOLSON: Looks very nice...yeah.
NARRATOR: If all goes well, it will be opened again only after a very long time, perhaps by conservators yet unborn.
Five years after the process began, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence are back on display.
ROGER WILKINS: The words are so powerful, so beautiful, so noble, that they became a centerpiece of our understanding of who we are as a people.
NARRATOR: In the renovated Rotunda of the National Archives, a swearing in ceremony: new citizens, men and women from everywhere on earth. Unique to this nation, we 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.
Over the next 200 years people will view the documents; and the documents, in their new encasements of glass, aluminum and titanium, will look out on a very different world. One thing is certain, though the words remain the same, their meaning will continue to change, evolving, adapting to new times and circumstances, to a world that we, and their authors, can scarcely imagine.
On NOVA's Web site, take a closer look at the most revered of these documents, the Declaration, and see how it has changed over the past two centuries. Find it on PBS.org.
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Saving the National Treasures
Produced and Directed by
Readings from Declaration by
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The Producers gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of The National Archives & Records Administration and The National Institute of Standards and Technology. We wish to thank, in particular, the staffs of these organizations - without their generous help, this program would not have been possible.
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