Archives Bans Photography In Rotunda

In an effort to safeguard the original record copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the National Archives has decided to ban all photography in the Rotunda, where the historical documents are displayed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Since the 1950s, if you wanted a picture of yourself standing next to the original Declaration of Independence, all you had to do was this: Go to the rotunda of the National Archives here in Washington, stand in line, say cheese, snap a picture, just keep your flash off. Except some people don't, as we found out on a recent visit.

Unidentified Man #1: I thought it was off.

Unidentified Woman #1: We thought it was off.

Unidentified Man #1: It was off before when I took the other pictures, but it turned on.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The flashes are quick, sporadic, and it's often hard to pinpoint who among the dozens of tourists did the deed. The one guy our producer Melissa Gray caught wouldn't give his name, but he's typical of most flashers. He's got a digital device and he doesn't know how to control the flash on it, which is why the Archives decided to ban all photography in the rotunda starting tomorrow.

Ms. KITTY NICHOLSON (Senior Conservator, National Archives): The light is very bright. It's a very intense light for a brief time.

BLOCK: Kitty Nicholson is the Archive's senior conservator, one of the people who maintains the official record copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They're old and fragile, so they're sealed behind thick glass and a cool temperature under very low light except for those random, pesky flashes.

SIEGEL: So if you were to say, hey, Kitty, just one flash, she shakes her head. It's not the one that is the problem. She says it's the many.

Ms. NICHOLSON: Fifty thousand is our count, our estimate for a year.

SIEGEL: Bright light equals damage, says Nicholson, no matter how brief, and since the Archives wants to keep these documents preserved in perpetuity, they have to stop the flashes. The only way to do that, they say, is to stop the cameras.

BLOCK: Believe it or not, it was the public who alerted the Archives to the flashing problem by leaving comments in the visitor's log, and after looking at the Declaration, you can see why they might be concerned. The ink on the parchment is so faded, conservator Kitty Nicholson can only read the big print.

Ms. NICHOLSON: In Congress, July 4th, 1776, the unanimous declaration of the 13 states of America, and that's across the top, and then sort of flourishes for capitals. The main body of the text is actually pretty hard to read at this point.

SIEGEL: And the signatures, well, you can find John Hancock's, but Richard Stockton, William Whipple, Francis Lightfoot Lee, ghostly smudges. That's thanks to two centuries of heat, humidity and, yes, bright light.

Ms. TINA HOBGOOD(ph): I got this one here, and then I just took this one. It's just a big picture.

BLOCK: Scrolling through her cell phone, Tina Hobgood of Alexandria, Virginia, says she agrees with the no-photography ban, even though she made a special trip to the Archives to get one last picture for herself without a flash.

Ms. HOBGOOD: People like to say, well, hey, I've been there, and here is my picture to prove it. Just seeing pictures of Hawaii isn't as good as having your own.

SIEGEL: But after today, Tina and all other visitors will have to put their cameras away. If they still want that picture, they'll have to pose with a copy of the documents available in the gift shop or download it for free from the Archives' Web site.

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