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From Gothic to Gotham (and beyond): NCS Escorts Magna Carta

Looking after and promoting important historical collections is no easy task for any organization. It’s especially challenging for institutions that don't have the funding and staff that enable them to maintain a presence on national or global stages. How, then, can a smaller institution compete with the behemoths?One essential prerequisite is access to expertise in care and conservation.

The current travels of Hereford Cathedral’s 1217 Magna Carta and 1215 King John’s Writ - supported by NCS - are a case in point. The documents recently embarked on a global tour under the aegis of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as part of the GREAT Britain campaign. Scheduled stops include venues in the U.S., Luxembourg, China, Singapore, Malta and Portugal before the charters go back to Hereford in December. Such an undertaking is fraught with all manner of issues – the need to maintain the highest standards of care throughout being paramount – which is where NCS comes in.

Director Chris Woods has advised on the care of both the Magna Carta and King’s Writ since 2013, and he escorted them on their first overseas trip to Houston last year. That was a six-month, single venue loan; this tour is a much more complicated operation that requires him to deliver them safely to multiple destinations, unpacking, installing, monitoring and repacking each time for visits ranging from five to ten days. Moving such old and valuable items so frequently is unusual enough. Throw in long haul flights, security and dealing with the many curators and conservators at the different locations and this tour presents a demanding set of conservation challenges.

The beginning of the tour took the documents from the Gothic splendours of Hereford Cathedral to the modern ‘Gotham City’ - New York - where they were on display from September 23 – 30.  Under normal circumstances the city is about as different a setting from Hereford as one can imagine, but that week it was even more frenetic than usual due to the excitement, and paralyzing traffic, generated by the imminent arrival of Pope Francis and the start of the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings. The exhibition venue was the New York Historical Society (NYHS), a stately institution on the Upper West Side.  Rather appropriately, life-size statues of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass flank the building’s doors – figures arguably as central to American ideas of individual freedoms as are interpretations of Magna Carta.

The Hereford charter and the King’s Writ spent their first night in New York secured in the NYHS vault, deposited there directly immediately after arriving in the States. They made the journey inside sealed frames, carried in a special steel and aluminium travelling case that also held insulation, humidity controls and monitoring devices. The case isn’t particularly heavy – about 25 kilos – but at just under a metre square it is unwieldy.  The following morning, a sizeable welcoming committee was on hand - NYHS staff, representatives from the British consulate and from Hereford Cathedral - befitting the veneration in which Magna Carta is held in America. Formalities over, the real work began.

Unless one deals with centuries-old historically significant pieces of parchment on a regular basis, it’s instructive to see the painstaking process of a conservator in action. The task of unpacking and examining the documents before finally installing them in the display cases took more than two hours.

Chris monitored the light and humidity levels in the room and checked the case’s security seals, before opening it to remove the two frames that had held the pages in completely controlled environments since they were packed up in Hereford. Each frame sandwiched its contents between layers of grey Plastazote foam placed on top of a sheet of silica gel capable of holding humidity levels steady for several months. Working first on the Magna Carta, Chris gently slid the foam padding out of the one unsealed end of the frame. The parchment was covered with a calendared, lint-free Japanese paper to prevent it from coming into contact with the padding. Before removing this protection, he checked the temperature and humidity readings en route by downloading data from tiny data loggers in the frames. There are two of these little monitors to ensure comparative and constant feedback in the unlikely event that one should fail. As expected, there were slight variations in the results from the Hereford library, the van to the airport, the flight and the overnight stay in the vault but all were well within acceptable levels.

Now the paper came off, revealing a closely and beautifully written Latin script - ink aged to a rusty brown – on cream parchment with a fold at the bottom where the seals of young Henry III’s regents would originally have been. As the charter was stored folded for many years, it is divided into six sections by deep fold lines that give it a rather uneven appearance; it is ‘cockled’, in conservator parlance. Next came a very close examination of the document, Chris wearing a face mask at this stage so as not to breathe on it. He first felt around the edges to check if the tissue mounts underneath had lifted up due to temperature fluctuations (they hadn’t).  Using a 60x magnifying glass, he poured over the text, pointing out various areas of interest to conservator Heidi Nakashima who then signed off on its condition on behalf of NYHS. The Magna Carta went back into the frame and was sealed up.

The whole process was repeated with the King’s Writ.  This is the only known surviving copy of King John’s order to local sheriffs that the 1215 Magna Carta be obeyed. It is small –about the size of a postcard – and the limited surface area reduces the likelihood of humidity fluctuations within the frame due to water retention in the parchment. But in other ways it is more physically vulnerable than the larger Magna Carta and has more visible damage. The letter has small holes caused by insect larvae and there is also some rust damage, probably from contact with a steel clip or pin in the past.

For the final part of the installation process the action moved to the exhibition gallery. Chris and Heidi carefully positioned the documents in a display case along with an assortment of temperature, light and humidity monitors, large packets of 40% silica gel and Plastazote risers to elevate the frames. This new case is another example of NCS knowhow. The receptacle was made in England, to Chris’s design and specifications, and then shipped to New York ahead of the documents’ arrival. It provides a variation on the usual style of display case and will be used on each leg of the tour. Secure and sturdy, it’s light enough to ship easily while adhering to stringent protection standards for its contents. The large glass-hinged lid makes for easy access and unimpeded viewing on all four sides. The bulk of the conservation work done, all that remained was to store the packing materials away, and for Chris to check in with Heidi periodically to ensure conditions inside the case were holding until he returned to move the documents to their next stop.

The whole process of transporting and caring for the Magna Carta and King’s Writ is a lengthy one that will need to be performed with the same exactitude at each of the venues in the seven countries on the tour. After New York they go to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and then on to Beijing, where they are currently on display at the British Ambassador’s residence. Guangzhou and Shanghai are next on the Chinese leg of the tour, followed by stops in other Far East cities before the documents head back to Europe. Venues are varied, several are not traditional gallery locations, so one major challenge in planning has been temporarily equipping facilities and staff to meet the rigorous management, security and environmental requirements defined by NCS and approved by UK authorities before such sites could be used. Without the expertise of NCS would it be possible for Hereford Cathedral to consider - let alone execute – such an undertaking and to benefit from the recognition that the Foreign Office intends the tour to generate? Given the degree of expert knowledge and experience that intra-institutional lending requires, the answer is probably not. With such specialist conservation care, all organizations can raise their profiles, increase recognition of their collections and ensure they are maintained to the highest standards while taking advantage of opportunities to make their treasures available to a wider audience.

See the Gallery section to the right for pictures from the tour.