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NIST Builds Enclosure to Display and Protect the 1297 Magna Carta for the National Archives

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NIST’s Brian Yanick (left) and Jay Brandenburg inspect the Magna Carta platform’s rear side after machining.  The special “nest” for the wax seal is the keyhole-shaped object at the bottom center.

On Feb. 2 when many people were focusing on groundhogs and their shadows, the National Archives focused on high-tech conservation and the freshly conserved 1297 Magna Carta, including its state-of-the-art encasement designed and built by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The first Magna Carta was signed in 1215 by King John of England after an assembly of barons forced him to put in writing for the first time the traditional rights and liberties of the country’s free persons. In 1297, King Edward I was forced to reissue the Magna Carta. This time it was entered into the official Statute Rolls of England and became the foundation of English Law. Centuries later it inspired the writers of the U.S. Constitution.

Unveiled at a briefing for the news media, the encasement is a controlled environment, something NIST’s Fabrication Technology Group builds regularly for lab research. Its cover is made of a special laminated glass with antireflective coatings to ensure maximum visibility of the document while protecting it. The tightly sealed case is filled with argon gas—which will not react with and damage the parchment as oxygen would. The encasement will be continuously monitored to ensure oxygen stays out.

NIST engineers and crafts people also built the platform on which the document sits within the protective encasement. They used a three-dimensional laser scan of the Magna Carta and its wax seal to guide a computer-controlled milling machine that cut away 90 percent of what began as a six-inch thick block of aluminum. The result is a nest of sorts to hold the parchment and its original wax seal (which still bears the likeness of Edward I). The nest makes sure the seal does not put any strain on the ribbon that attaches it to the delicate parchment document.

The end result is an enclosure about 41 inches wide by 28 inches long and 6 inches deep that weighs 225 pounds—which is why NIST also built a special cart to move it. The adjustable cart allows the document platform to be raised and lowered to different viewing angles.

By mid-February the entire encasement and cart will be rolled inside a new interactive display in the West Rotunda Gallery of the U.S. National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. There it will be on display for the 1 million visitors that pass through the Archives each year, alongside three other documents for which NIST built similar enclosures—the Declaration of  Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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