Inquiring Minds: The Document Man

Christopher Woods

Christopher Woods

Armed guards? Check. Secret rendezvous points? Check. Mysterious steel briefcase? Check. Sounds like a James Bond movie. But it’s just a day in the life of Christopher Woods, director of the National Conservation Service in Britain. By day, he’s a leading conservator in the field with more than 29 years experience working in the heritage sector, including serving as head of Conservation and Collection Care at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and director of Collection and Programme Services at the Tate Gallery in London. By night – well, more like special assignment – he is the man tasked with transporting Lincoln Cathedral’s original copy of Magna Carta when it’s on travel.

The 800-year-old charter, signed by England’s King John in 1215, details the rights and liberties granted to his barons in order to halt their rebellion and restore their allegiance to his throne. The document is widely recognized as influencing America’s own Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Woods deposited the historical document at the Library of Congress in November to be placed on view in the exhibition, “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor.” The 10-week exhibition closes next Monday, Jan. 19, and Woods will return to pack up his precious cargo for its journey home.

Woods said traveling with Magna Carta is pretty “low key.”

“People don’t know when and where it’s traveling,” he added.

The document is secured in an insulated box system that protects it from temperature change, pressure and movement and flies first class to its destination. Woods quipped that he’s not handcuffed to the steel travel case during transport.

When leaving the U.K. with Magna Carta for his trips abroad, Woods is escorted to the plane.

“Then, in the United States, I’m met by armed guards upon arrival,” he added.

Woods admitted the first few times he traveled with Magna Carta he was nervous.

“There was a time when it was such a relief to get the plane in the air,” he said.

However well traveled he may be at this point, he’s always vigilant, especially considering the planning and work that goes into keeping Magna Carta safe and protected while away from its home at the cathedral.

The charter undergoes an annual inspection, multiple condition reports pre- and post-loan, and lots of photographs are taken, including ones of key areas needing monitoring.

Magna Carta has a special display case specifically for U.S. loans, with features that allow Woods to monitor conditions inside, even while he’s back in Britain, using his smart phone.

Woods explained that humidity control is of utmost importance.

Detail of key area that is regularly monitored. The letter is a capital N, at the start of one of the "Nulla'" or "no man" (as in "no man shall be taken or imprisoned ... except by the lawful judgement of his peers ...," clause 39.

Detail of key area that is regularly monitored. The letter is a capital N, at the start of one of the “Nulla'” or
“No man” (as in “No man shall be taken or imprisoned … except by the lawful judgement of his peers …,” clause 39.

“As long as we keep the humidity stable, the ink will remain well-attached,” he said.

Lighting can also impact condition of the document, although Woods explained that as long as there isn’t any ultraviolet light, there isn’t much concern about fading.

“Magna Carta has a light allowance – how many hours of light allowed in any one year,” he said. “In theory, three months out of the year the document is taken off display, which gives it enough allowance to be loaned.”

Woods is tasked with a great responsibility, and having this close a relationship with such an important document isn’t unobserved.

“I’ve learned a lot about Magna Carta as a document, and I’ve learned even more with the Library’s exhibit,” he said. “I’ve learned the importance of the document to its people, and I’ve come to understand my capacity to do the job right.

“It’s important for this original item to be preserved, because there is nothing quite like it. When the real thing is in front of you, it becomes less an academic object and more a talisman. It becomes an icon.”

Join Christopher Woods at 10 a.m. on Jan. 19 in the exhibition, located in the second floor South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building, where he will discuss the care and conservation of Magna Carta.

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