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Three of the nation’s oldest residents will soon be released from rehab and moved back into their refurbished home to resume receiving the approximately 1 million visitors they entertain each year. In a rededication ceremony on Sept. 17, the National Archives and Records Administration will unveil the newly restored and re-encased Charters of Freedom — the documents better known as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. For the first time ever, all four pages of the Constitution will join the other documents in permanent display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue, between 7th and 9th streets, N.W. On Sept. 18, the exhibit will reopen to the public. Amplifying the permanent exhibit will be a major display of original documents, “A New World Is at Hand,” which explains the story of the Charters of Freedom. “We will have a better presentation for those who visit us,” says John Carlin, archivist of the United States, who oversaw the restoration of the Charters of Freedom. “Visitors will not only see the Charters in modern encasements and placed in a way that is more conducive for children and for those who are in wheelchairs to benefit from the experience, but the exhibit that goes with the Charters in the Rotunda will much more substantially communicate how it is these records came about and the impact these records have had on us since they were developed.” ON SABBATICAL On July 5, 2001, the documents were taken off display and removed from the encasements that had been their home since 1952. The ensuing restoration project was twofold, according to Carlin. It consisted of repair work on the documents themselves as well as research, study, and construction of modern, high-tech encasements for their exhibition. “Our conservators worked in a variety of ways to carefully go over the documents,” says Carlin. “Obviously, they’re incredibly valuable and to some degree fragile because of the mistreatment and lack of care early in their lives. Everything that was done had to be meticulously carried out.” Carlin explains, for example, that if conservators found that any ink had become detached from a document, they would determine where that remnant had come from and put it back in place. “What we cannot do, what would be totally inappropriate,” says Carlin, “would be to go back in and touch up. You don’t do that. But you can carefully clean and work on any damaged area.” The second prong of the restoration, the development and construction of new encasements for the documents, was accomplished with the help of an interdisciplinary team of conservators, archivists, engineers, design and exhibit specialists, architects, chemists, and physicists. “We reached out to the best talent we could find to come in to advise us,” says Carlin. The team was assembled from both inside and outside the government, from industry and from academia. Working in conjunction with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which actually did the construction, it designed the largely titanium and aluminum containers that promise to be a significant improvement over the former models, which, before they were scrapped, began to show signs of glass deterioration. Another upgrade: The 1952-era encasements contained helium in their airtight chambers; argon, which has proved to be more effective as a protective gas, is in the new models. Says Carlin of the new display cases: “Technology has improved, with no disrespect to the technology of 1952. We switched the gas, we switched the way it’s put together, the materials that were used, the capacity for us to more significantly and accurately monitor the conditions. Almost every aspect was changed to take advantage of the most modern technology … to make sure that we were taking advantage of the best knowledge, the best ways to preserve these most valuable Charters of Freedom for the country, for the future, for future generations.” The project was funded by Congress as well as by an $800,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew grant, according to Carlin, allowed the National Archives to get a head start on the research for the sophisticated encasements before the appropriated money was in hand. ‘MAXIMUM SECURITY’ The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place several months after the Charters of Freedom were removed from public viewing. When asked if those tragic events altered the manner in which the historical documents would be displayed, Carlin has this to say: “Did 9/11 change how we present the Charters of Freedom? No. We were on maximum security direction, period, 9/11 aside. They’re going to be in the best vaults that can possibly be built, in the system that takes maximum interest in security. The changes will involve a higher level of security as it relates to people coming in off Constitution Avenue. For all our buildings, there will be a much more secure approach, taking into account changes that have taken place and the realities we’ve had to adjust to.” To celebrate the reopening of the Rotunda, the National Archives is sponsoring two weeks of free public programs and family activities. To accommodate the anticipated early crowds, the Rotunda will be open from Thursday, Sept. 18, to Saturday, Sept. 20, from 10 a.m. to midnight. On Sunday, Sept. 21, normal winter hours — 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — will resume. “We don’t want people to just come in and see what some would say are just icons, just valuable relics, just records with intrinsic value,” says Carlin. “We want them to see documents that live and breathe and impact us today.” To this end, the National Archives and the Foundation for the National Archives are instituting a program called the National Archives Experience. Its stated goal is to “ensure that each visitor will take from it an understanding of his or her own personal and profound connection to the records in the National Archives.” Carlin says the program should be completely up and running in a year’s time. About the Sept. 18 reopening of the Rotunda, he says this: “The point is, this is just the beginning, the first step — a very dramatic and important first step — but it’s just the beginning. We’re building a permanent exhibit which will, I think, have huge impact. We’re going to have a theater that, for the first time, will allow us in a real significant way to use the tremendous resources we have in terms of documentary film. We’re going to have a learning center and a tremendous impact on the Internet. Everything we’re doing here is going to be available to the multiple of millions around the country and around the world who will not have the opportunity to come to Washington, but will appreciate the experience we’re going to provide them.”

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