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February 19, 2012

Magna Carta, newly restored, is back on display at National Archives

Bouvines King Jogn signs magna carta

America’s only original Magna Carta, one of 17 still in existence, is back on display in a new, interactive exhibit at the National Archives after a year of restoration to the 715-year-old “Great Charter”.

Widely considered the most significant document in Western history, connections between the 1297 Magna Carta and our three “Charters of Freedom” — the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights exhibited in the Archives’ Rotunda — are explained by simply touching a virtual button on the new display.

Touch a different icon for the English translation of the medieval Latin document: “no taxation without representation”, “trial by jury”, and of course, habeas corpus.

This is the only Magna Carta in private hands, bought by Washington philanthropist David Rubenstein for $21.3 million in 2007 at a Sotheby’s auction, and loaned indefinitely to the National Archives. Rubenstein also funded the $13.5 million project to restore, repair, and re-encase it, and provide the very accessible, fascinating display.

Rubenstein was, understandably, the guest of honor at a private reception celebrating the event, followed by a panel discussion with him and historians.

“People love looking at original documents in person, although you can see everything on the Internet,” Rubenstein noted. “One million people come to the Archives to see these precious documents.”

He quoted Woody Allen’s saying, “’90 percent of life is just showing up.’ Well, 90 percent is just seeing these documents in person. And that isn’t going to go away any time soon, I hope.”

Huge applause from the audience at the free discussion, “Magna Carta and the Constitution”.

The billionaire philanthropist said, “I like buying documents that are expressions of freedom, that symbolize the great freedoms of this country. I’m delighted to (buy and lend it) as an American…I hope it inspires people to read about the history of our freedom.”

He attributes buying the Magna Carta to “serendipity.” He was invited to view the document, then owned by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, when it was displayed for the auction at Sotheby’s. The curator told Rubenstein that it was likely to be bought by someone outside of the US. He wanted to keep it in America.

“It seems a little presumptuous to buy the Magna Carta,” he confided. “I didn’t want to tell my wife, or my children, who’d say, ‘how much less money would that mean for me?'”

Rubenstein continued, “I thought it would go for a higher price. Then a man came over and said, ‘You bought it. Who are you? And can you afford it?”

Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group private equity firm, announced in January that he will donate $7.5 million to help restore the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument. In December, he donated $4.5 million to the National Zoo’s giant panda reproduction program.

Back to the Magna Carta, which was of, by, and for English barons. “The great American innovation” was applying the document’s principles to the common man. Even so, as we know, neither African Americans nor women were included in “all men are created equal.”

The National Archives will open the David M. Rubenstein Gallery in 2013, where the Magna Carta and its interactive display will reside. The gallery will be a “Record of Rights”, with displays explaining the centuries-old, ever-continuing struggles for all our rights, including civil rights, women’s rights, and immigrants’ rights.

Eventually, the gallery will include his copy of the Emancipation Proclamation now on loan to the Oval Office, and his copy of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, signed by President Lincoln, on loan to the New-York Historical Society until April 1.

What document is next on Rubenstein’s shopping list? He’d love to have one of only five originals that still exist of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He estimated one would sell for $50 million — “But they won’t be for sale.”

For more info: National Archives,, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.



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