Magna Carta delivers its enduring vitality to the Clark Institute

The Magna Carta is an inspiring part of the  ‘Radical Words’ exhibit currently showing at the Clark. Photo courtesy of
The Magna Carta is an inspiring part of the ‘Radical Words’ exhibit currently showing at the Clark. Photo courtesy of

It is widely known that Williamstown has more intellectual attractions than the average rural town in western Massachusetts. But, as students, we still often forget just how spectacular our opportunities here are. Which is why anyone feeling cynical or caged-in by the relatively isolated location of the college should make their way to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute before Nov. 2 to take a look at what is surely one of the most impressive publicly displayed collections of historical documents in the world at this moment.

Indeed, everything about the Clark’s new exhibit Radical Words seems like it should be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or in the Smithsonian than in our own humble Williamstown. Not only are the documents on display of high quality, but they are also some of the most rare important intellectual artifacts in the world. That being said, not everything in the exhibit is new in town. Indeed, two of the most impressive features – one of 26 surviving first editions of the Declaration of Independence, and George Mason’s annotated copy of the Constitution – are loans from the Chapin Hall Rare Books Library.

However, the star of the show – the “Lincoln Cathedral Exemplar Magna Carta” – was brought here solely for this exhibit. Advertised as one of the most accurate original editions of the famous British document (of which only four remain), the faded Latin script of the text displays to even the most uninterested viewer the power of historical artifact and the written text, an experience that all budding scholars of the College should take advantage of.

Rounding out the exhibit are four more documents that extend the scope of Radical Words to the 19th century and beyond. A rare third edition of the Emancipation Proclamation, a first run of the Declaration of the Rights of Women and a 1949 version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide the crucial final pieces in the narrative the Clark is trying to tell about the power of words and ideas. While perhaps not as glamorous as the more foundational documents, these documents provide important, tangible insight into what exactly it is about the foundational documents that make them so important and vital.

In combination with the relatively short duration of the documents’ stay at the Clark, this should be all the incentive a Williams student needs to take the walk down Cold Spring Road and take a look at Radical Words themselves. After all, maybe the author of the next great founding document is among us, just waiting for the spark of inspiration they need to author the next great foundational text.

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