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NCS & Lincoln's Great Exhibition

A blog by NCS news editor Rachel Gordon

As you no doubt have heard, Magna Carta is 800 years old this year - a milestone marked by events around the UK and worldwide - and NCS is providing conservation care and advice for several documents related to this significant anniversary. Lincolnshire’s Great Exhibition is one example of our involvement in the commemorations. Staged in four venues around Lincoln, the exhibition brings together a wonderful collection of documents and artefacts connected to the county. The items on show come from public and private collections in Lincolnshire, Britain and further afield; several of them linked to NCS. 

After its highly successful recent tour of the United States, followed by reunification with the other three remaining 1215 charters at the British Library and Houses of Parliament - all under the stewardship of NCS Director Chris Woods - the Lincoln Cathedral 2015 Magna Carta is back home as a centerpiece of the Great Exhibition. Housed in a new display vault in Lincoln Castle, it is one of three seminal documents displayed there. The purpose-built setting is spare, stark even. Only the three large glass cases that contain the charters are in the room, but the absence of any distractions other than the text of Magna Carta etched high on the entrance wall only serves to add to the impact of what is on view. NCS set the protective specifications for the room as well as for the display cases and all three documents are mounted in NCS-designed frames. These frames, custom-made by Chris and colleague Ian Johns, enclose the charters in sealed climates, with UV filtering, non-reflective glazing. Internal humidity and temperature sensors can be electronically accessed from outside the cases, enabling regular review of conditions within to ensure that the documents remain in pristine condition as they enter their next century.

The importance of King John's Magna Carta is reasonably well understood, but the two items that join the 1215 Charter in the castle exhibition may be rather less familiar. The 1217 Charter of the Forest, also belonging to Lincoln Cathedral, was issued in the name of Henry III, son of the infamous King John. This charter, the sister to Henry's 1217 re-issue of Magna Carta, separated out the from the first charter the pressing 13th century questions of forest law and land use. It covers a wide range of concerns varying from ownership of territory, commoners' use of land, roaming pigs and the treatment of hunting dogs. NCS provides conservation support for both this document and the 1225 exemplar in the Cathedral’s possession. The third item in the vault is the Queen’s 1225 Magna Carta, on loan from the National Archives. This charter, issued by an adult Henry III rather than the child who became king in 1216, is arguably the definitive version of Magna Carta. It is the clauses from this iteration that eventually entered the statute book at the end of the century and became part of English law. 

Among the many institutions contributing to the Great Exhibition are the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and Trinity College, Cambridge. Both organizations took advantage of Chris Woods’ frequent visits to Lincoln on Magna Carta business to benefit from NCS expertise and knowhow when it came to installing their materials in the Lincoln display. The Library of Congress loan is in the part of the exhibition housed in The Collection museum. Drawn by Lincolnshire native Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) this 1624 map is the earliest to show the entire Chesapeake Bay area, reflecting Smith’s role in establishing the first permanent English settlement in the region. Trinity College, Cambridge loaned its12th century New Testament for show alongside Lincoln Cathedral’s Old Testament; together the two volumes make up the Chapter Bible of Lincoln Cathedral. Gorgeously illuminated, and significant as the earliest English illustrated Romanesque Bible, the works are reunited here for the first time since the Trinity copy mysteriously turned up in Cambridge in the 17th century. They are arguably amongst the most impressive items in the section of the exhibition displayed in the Cathedral’s beautiful Medieval Library.

The Great Exhibition runs until September 27th, 2015 and it’s well worth a visit. There are plenty of fascinating sights on offer besides the documents and charters that NCS cares for. It’s remarkable that Lincolnshire has produced or nurtured quite so many eminent luminaries in so many different fields. Featuring characters as diverse as John Wesley, Isaac Newton and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, explorers Sir Joseph Banks and John Franklin, painters George Stubbs and LS Lowry, politicians William Cecil and Margaret Thatcher as well as a stunning array of paintings, treasures and documents, this exhibition has something for everyone.