Storing The Constitution
Today, the original copy of the Constitution is kept in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The Constitution is stored alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The room that displays these three pivotal documents is called the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.
The National Archives Museum is open to the public, allowing anyone who purchases a ticket to see these documents firsthand.
The Constitution’s Journey
A Working Document
When the Constitution first went into effect, the founding fathers had little interest in the original piece of parchment. As a new frame of government, many copies were sent to states and made for politicians to examine at their leisure. The Constitution was written to endure, but very little attention was paid to the original copy.
Finding The Constitution
In 1883, a historian by the name of J. Franklin Jameson found the original Constitution in a box in a closet in the State, War, and Navy Building. This original was not sealed until 1894, at which point it was placed between two glass plates and stored in a safe.
At The Library of Congress
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated a public display of the Constitution at the Library of Congress. The Constitution was protected against moisture by special absorbent cellulose paper and carefully sealed between two panes of insulated plate glass. A gelatin film helped to protect the document from light.
In 1941, during World War II, the Constitution was moved to the United States Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky to be stored. It was kept there until September 1944.
Encasing The Constitution
In 1951, a study was conducted by the National Bureau of Standards that helped examine the way the Constitution was stored. The Constitution was re-encased in glass, this time with special light filters, inert gas, and more favorable humidity. The document was moved to the National Archives in 1952.
Since 1952, the Constitution has been displayed in its current home in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.
In July 2001, the document was removed from its cases, treated for preservation, and installed in new, modern display cases in September 2003.
Where Is The National Archives Building?
The National Archives Building is located at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington DC. It’s in between the Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Justice, just north of the National Mall.
Preserving the Constitution
Problem With The 1952 Constitution Cases
In 1952, the Constitution was hermetically sealed between glass plates. The case was filled with inert helium gas, protecting the document from the corrosive effects of normal air. Despite this treatment, small white spots began to appear on the document. The National Archives turned to NASA for help, utilizing the agency’s atmospheric experts for the unusual task.
Diagnosing the Spots
First, the experts used laser spectroscopy to see what the gas content of the encasement was like. Scientists found that the inert helium was still present, proving that the white spots weren’t the result of a gas leak.
Next, the team measured the relative humidity in the case. Unlike the helium, the team found that the humidity in the chamber was twice as high as it should have been. In the absence of a gas leak, it’s likely that this humidity was the result of the backing paper absorbing water on humid days while the Constitution was first being encased. After the Constitution was sealed, this moisture escaped into the case.
The white spots were found to be the result of this humidity interacting with the glass around the Constitution. This process, known as glass disease, is irreversible.
Building New Cases
In order to keep the Constitution safe, the team carefully unsealed each piece of parchment. Before re-sealing the document, however, they underwent preservation efforts to keep the document safe and legible. In many places, the original ink was beginning to lift off in flakes, so the team utilized a microscope and a very fine brush to paint small amounts of warm gelatin underneath the lifting flake, allowing the ink to relax back onto the page.
In 2003, the Constitution was moved to more modern encasements, fixing many of the issues of the 1952 cases. Not only was there now a gap between the surface of the document and the top layer of glass, but the humidity was also properly controlled to 25% to 35%. Instead of helium, argon gas was used for the new cases.
The constitution is now displayed to the public and has millions of visitors a year.