An original Magna Carta on exhibition, British Library


The original Magna Carta was sealed in 1215, and the British Library in London is holding a unique exhibition in honour of the anniversary. However, much preparation was needed to get the manuscripts ready for public viewing.

It is 800 years since Magna Carta was granted by King John of England to end a conflict with his barons. Said to be the UK’s most significant legal manuscript, it is considered to be the beginning of constitutional government in England. It meant that everyone, including the king, was subject to the law, and it was a first in the nation’s judicial system.

1. Along with two copies of Magna Carta, Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of the original copies of the US Bill of Rights and other manuscripts and royal relics are in one exhibition to celebrate the charter’s anniversary.

2. The wear and tear of centuries can leave irreparable damage. However, multispectral imaging has been used by Magna Carta’s imaging team to uncover what was thought to have been lost for good. They planned every movement and sequence of images well in advance, using facsimiles before receiving the manuscripts in their protective frames.

3. The unframed manuscripts then underwent a full condition assessment with a Keyence VHX 2000E digital microscope. It has a free-angle observation system, allowing the team to capture images from different angles without handling the manuscript. Christina Duffy, imaging scientist, says: “I imaged all relevant areas such as ink, parchment and the seals themselves and any unusual features like stains.”

4. The multispectral imaging system was designed by MegaVision. Duffy explains: “The system captures images over 12 spectral bands from the near ultraviolet (365nm) to the near infrared (1050nm). Cultural heritage material in general can be very challenging to digitise, as the items can be fragile and vulnerable to handling.”

5. The Canterbury Magna Carta was badly damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. In the 1830s, British Library staff attempted its restoration by flattening it and using a mix of chemicals. This was thought to improve its condition, but instead further damaged the document.

6. Nearly all of the images have been digitally stitched across the entire imaging sequence and the colour images have been generated,” says Duffy.

7. The team say they felt a deeper appreciation for the manuscripts as something physical with a story to tell beyond the text itself. Principal component analysis (PCA), a procedure that iteratively looks for the internal structure of data, created the most successful set of Canterbury images to date. Duffy says the results could significantly alter current understanding about provenance and context.

Photo credit: The British Library

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