A plain black van from the Massachusetts Archives was escorted to the front door of the Northeast Document Conservation Center by officers of the Massachusetts State Police Motorcycle Unit. Assistant Archivist Michael Comeau emerged from the van carrying a carefully wrapped package and walked into the building flanked by State Police officers. What was the occasion for this heightened security?
In 2008, the Massachusetts Archives brought several of the state’s most prized documents to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) for treatment in preparation for a new exhibit. The Massachusetts Archives and the Commonwealth Museum redesigned the exhibit space within the Archives facility at Columbia Point. The new exhibit, titled Our Commonwealth: The Massachusetts Experiment in Democracy, relates major historical themes to current issues in a dramatic, informative, and entertaining new venue that traces the gradual extension of rights to all citizens and highlight the diversity of present day Massachusetts.
A highlight of the new museum exhibit is the “Treasure Gallery” which displays some of the nation’s most important and revered documents. The five documents displayed in the Treasures Gallery were brought to NEDCC for conservation treatment in preparation for the exhibit.
Conservation treatment of the documents varied and included surface cleaning and removal of adhesive residue from old repairs, mending tears, flattening, and, for one document, removal from a chemically unstable cardboard mount, washing, and de-acidification.
All the documents were encapsulated in polyester film after treatment to protect them from humidity fluctuations until they were encased in custom designed, climate-controlled, oxygen-free cases for exhibit. The encasements were manufactured by the Massachusetts Archives according to principles and techniques that were developed for the permanent display of the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington.
Before the documents were encapsulated, high quality digital images were created in NEDCC’s Digital Lab for future use. Once the documents were encased, there will not be another opportunity to digitize them for perhaps 100 years.
The documents were treated at NEDCC over a two-month period before being returned to the Archives. The exhibit, entitled Our Common Wealth: The Massachusetts Experiment in Democracy 1620–Today, celebrated its grand opening in April, 2009. The exhibit uses state-of-the-art technology to trace the development of rights in Massachusetts from the 1600s until today. Climate controlled cases display the documents that were treated at the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Interactive exhibits, personal stories, and a high tech theater bring history alive. Click here for the Massachusetts Archives slideshow about the creation of the Treasure Gallery exhibits.
The Massachusetts Archives Treasure Gallery Documents
The 1629 Charter of Massachusetts Bay
The 1692 Charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1780
The Bill of Rights
The Declaration of Independence
NEDCC is grateful for support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Story and photographs: Julie Martin, NEDCC