Original Magna Carta and replica get a cleaning

The Magna Carta, inside the Capitol, is the oldest document seen as establishing the rule of common law.
The Magna Carta, inside the Capitol, is the oldest document seen as establishing the rule of common law. (Office Of The Architect Of The Capitol)

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By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

Okay, liberty lovers -- time for your summer-slowdown pop quiz:

True or false? The following sentence appears in the U.S. Constitution:

"No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned . . . or in any other way destroyed . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice."

The correct answer: False.

In 1215, scribes for King John of England wrote that declaration, in Latin, into the Magna Carta, after a bunch of barons confronted their despotic king about their rights and demanded, "put it in writing, your Majesty." It is the oldest document seen as establishing the rule of common law that became codified 575 years later with this variation: "No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

That's the sentence in the Constitution.

Americans may not be carrying around little copies of the Magna Carta in their shirt pockets and purses, in the way that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are the must-have accessory for "tea party" members. But it remains an important piece of animal skin. And both the replica of it in the U.S. Capitol and the real thing at the National Archives are getting spruced up.

The August recess is the moment for important refurbishing, restoring, repainting and reconfiguring at the Capitol and across its ground. When the legislators leave and the tourists diminish, the intrepid workers of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol swarm the 16.5 million square feet of buildings and more than 450 acres of the Capitol campus.

Nearly all of the projects require a level of expertise in historical preservation. The dome is being repainted, the mahogany doors on the House and Senate sides are being restored, and the plaster ceiling in Statuary Hall must be repaired. Over at the Library of Congress, the lantern glass of the Jefferson Building and the Blashfield mural in the Reading Room are undergoing restoration.

Much of this work is done in-house, said OAC spokeswoman Eve Malecki, but some of it requires the expertise of outside contractors, as is the case with the Magna Carta display.

An elaborate gilded presentation case atop a sandstone pedestal, the Magna Carta display has resided in the Rotunda since 1976, when it was given as a gift to Congress by the British Parliament as part of the nation's bicentennial celebration. It was crafted by English goldsmith Louis Osman, best known for making the coronet worn by Prince Charles at his investiture. In that first year, the case held, on loan from England, one of only four copies of the original 1217 document that survive.

After 34 years, it's gotten a little grubby, so a specialist in conservation is giving it a fastidious cleaning requiring gentle but determined work with a calcium powder, cotton and toothpicks. No water. No chemicals.

"It's very laborious, very detailed," said Malecki, and may take up to six weeks. The sandstone pedestal also will be cleaned and polished.

Then the Magna Carta display will move to the Crypt, where, Malecki said, it will dwell among several statues of signers to the Declaration of Independence. That is where the tour begins for the millions who stream through the Capitol Visitor Center each year. So that spot is more historically appropriate, she said, to showcase the document that first established freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the rights to a fair trial and to secure property, and the guarantee that all persons are subject to the same laws.

Over at the Archives, the only original Magna Carta on display in the United States is getting a $322,800 state-of-the-art encasement and new place in the spotlight, as the centerpiece in a new gallery that will trace the pursuit of freedom and government of laws through women's suffrage and civil rights.

That Magna Carta, a 1297 version issued by another king in a baronial dispute, Edward I, is the one first purchased from an English family by Ross Perot through his foundation in 1984, then put up for auction. It was purchased by Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein in 2007, for $21.7 million. He did so, he said, to make sure the treasure would remain on display at the Archives, and so he has placed it on permanent loan there and will fund its preservation.


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