Clark Institute selected to display Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, one of the most important historical documents, will be coming to the Clark Institute in September 2014. Photo courtesy of hua.umf.maine.edu
The Magna Carta, one of the most important historical documents, will be coming to the Clark Institute in September 2014. Photo courtesy of hua.umf.maine.edu

The Magna Carta, one of the most important historical documents, will be coming to the Clark Institute in September 2014. One of only four copies of the Magna Carta will be on display in an exhibition called “Radical Words: The Magna Carta to the Constitution,” coming this fall to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Through a partnership with Chapin Library, the Clark will also display the College’s’ Declaration of Independence and George Mason’s copy of the Committee of Style’s final draft of the Constitution along with this document. The draft of the Constitution includes Mason’s hand written notes and objections to the document on the back. “It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these three central components to our current system of justice all under one roof,” Victoria Saltzman, director of communications at the Clark said.

In celebration of the 800th anniversary of the 1215 sealing by King John at Runnymede of the Magna Carta, the copy of the documentcoming to Williamstown, Mass. will travel all the way from Lincoln Cathedral in England. The document is widely regarded as one of the most important forerunners of constitutional law, although at the time of its sealing, the king regarded it as an attempt to bide time and preserve his power. Its influence, however, was profound and enduring; the founders of the United States looked to Magna Carta as a major influence in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The Magna Carta will first be exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston from July 2 until September 1, accompanied by other historical loans and other works of art from the Museum’s collection. From MFA, the document will move to the Clark Art Institute for an exhibition from September 6 through November 2. Director of the Clark Michael Conforti said, “We are delighted to have the opportunity to bring the Magna Carta to Williamstown and know that this will be a historic moment for our community and for the Clark. We are planning an exhibition that underscores the document’s importance as the foundation of the principles that shaped our nation and inspires our visitors to consider anew the notions of democracy and freedom.”
From Williamstown the document will travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. until it returns to England in 2015. The exhibition in Washington will also commemorate the 75th anniversary of the November 1939 deposit of the Lincoln Magna Carta at the Library for safekeeping during World War II. The document was displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York during the war. Once the United States entered the War, it was taken to Fort Knox and finally returned to Britain in 1947. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, “We are honored to place on exhibition the Magna Carta, one of the lasting treasures of human history. The principles that underlay Magna Carta are the foundation of our liberties, inspiring this country’s Founding Fathers in shaping the U.S. Constitution and the laws of this land.”

State Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, led the effort to bring Magna Carta not just to Boston, but to the Berkshires as well, and the state legislature has allocated funds to support its trip to Massachusetts. According to Kathleen Morse, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Clark, “the idea was that the Clark was a very good geographic counterpart to Boston to make this an opportunity to make it available to as many people in Massachusetts and the surrounding area as possible.”

Although supplementary objects have yet to be selected, Saltzman promotes the Clark’s exhibition as a “chance to encourage people to rediscover just how powerful and radical the ideas were that went in to these documents,” especially “in the context of both their time and their impact.” She added, “we look at them today and they feel old and historic. People don’t recognize what the tremendous changes were that occurred in our societies as a result of people being willing to use radical words.”

The second time the Magna Carta has traveled to the United States was in 2007 for the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, Va.. At the Clark’s exhibition, Chapin Library will exhibit a printed edition of the Mayflower Compact from 1622, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, a printing of the Constitution from September 19, 1787 distributed to the people of Philadelphia the day before a copy reached the Continental Congress in New York City (the United States’ first government leak) and the Richmond, Va., printing of the Constitution as ratified by the Virginia Convention in 1788 with George Mason’s proposed amendments.