Conservation Challenge: The Magna Carta

A career-long fascination and appreciation of the work of those involved in conservation and preservation can be traced to my very first job in the MIT Humanities Library. There I learned about the special needs of vellum and leather bindings, the temperature and humidity requirements of paper, and the principle of never doing anything which cannot be undone. So it is with some special interest and pride that I brag about the effort that our conservation staff consistently puts forth on often difficult and delicate conservation tasks.  Their recent work on the Magna Carta is a great example of what they can do.

In a project funded by the document’s owner, David Rubenstein, the staff provided weeks of intensive treatment to the parchment and seal and eventually revealed previously illegible writing to the Magna Carta using ultra-violet photography.

The Rubenstein Magna Carta, before treatment, in an ultraviolet fluorescence photo of the parchment. Ultraviolet reveals obliterated text in damaged areas. Click on the image to see the full document and the damaged area in the bottom right side. (Photo by Sarah Raithel.)

The treatment completes the first phase of a project to re-encase and display the document publicly.  This copy of the Magna Carta, written in 1297, will eventually become part of a new permanent exhibit at the National Archives, documenting the expansion of human rights across the centuries.

Conservation Intern Sarah Raithel and Senior Conservator Morgan Zinsmeister adjust the lighting on the Magna Carta to prepare for ultraviolet fluorescence photography. (Photo by Terry Boone.)


This incredible conservation effort, led by senior conservators Terry Boone and Morgan Zinsmeister, as well as project manager Catherine Nicholson, removed old repairs and adhesive, and created new mends to stabilize the document while revealing text that was at one time lost to water damage.

You can see more about the document’s conservation treatment in our latest video: