The Declaration of Independence has long been regarded as a symbol of American democracy and liberty. The original document has been around for more than two centuries, and in that time it has dramatically faded and cracked—largely because of poor handling and preservation techniques.
Believe it or not, during its early years, the Declaration of Independence was often rolled up as it traveled between states and was not handled in a delicate fashion. In 1823, a copy was made, but during the process the original became wet, causing the ink to fade.
Later, in the 19th century, the Declaration of Independence was framed, hung and displayed next to a window at the old U.S. Patent Office (now part of the Smithsonian Institution) for many years, where exposure to sunlight contributed further to its deterioration. The document was eventually taken down and stored in a dry place, away from direct sunlight. At that time, preservation experts did not realize that to prevent cracking, the parchment, which was made from animal skin, needed a little moisture. The dryness factor while the document was in storage caused it to crack severely during the next 50 years.
In the ’50s, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) built helium-filled glass metal cases that helped keep destructive gases and microorganisms away from the precious document.
An examination of the Declaration of Independence in 1995, however, revealed signs of deterioration in the encasement’s glass. Furthermore, a very high amount of carbon dioxide was discovered. Although the document was not in danger, the glass was becoming opaque, obscuring the document inside. To remedy this, NIST recommended building new encasements for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Scientists and engineers from NIST collaborated with NASA to develop and build state-of-the-art encasements that would secure the documents against every type of harmful gas known.
Inside the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, D.C.
The Declaration of Independence, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is on exhibit at the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, D.C., where, thanks to advanced technology, the original words from our founding fathers can be preserved and can continue to guide our democracy for generations to come.