Special Exhibition Brings the Magna Carta to New York for One Week
The foundation of American democracy begins here.
The special week-long special exhibition, “Magna Carta 800: Sharing the Legacy of Freedom,” which just opened at the New-York Historical Society will give New Yorkers a rare chance to see an early copy of the 800-year-old document on their home turf.
Originally signed in 1215 by King John as a peace treaty with rebel barons, the Magna Carta decreed that everyone was subject to the rule of law—even the king—and had the right to justice and a fair trial. On loan from the Hereford Cathedral, this version of the historic document dates from 1217.
New York will be the first and only stop that the “Magna Carta 800” international tour, which also includes the only remaining copy of the 1215 King’s Writ, which let subjects know of the charter’s passage, will make on American soil.
“For all people in this country who want to see one of the truly foundational texts that established the need for rule of law, setting out the rights of individuals, the restraints on government, this is it, this is where it begins,” said Michael Ryan, vice president and director of the New-York Historical Society’s library, in a phone call with artnet News.
The show came together after a last minute request from the British Foreign Office in London, and required that the museum move the historic photos of Martin Luther King Jr. in the current exhibition “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein,” according to Ryan.
The exhibition also includes manuscripts from the Historical Society’s library that demonstrate the Magna Carta’s influence of the formation of our own government, including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and first edition copies of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“Paine actually refers to the Magna Carta as one of his points for rallying the people of the colonies,” noted Ryan.
The Magna Carta was reissued several times during the 13th century, with the 1217 edition coinciding with King John’s death, in order to maintain order under his nine-year-old son, Henry III.
To get to New York, the historic manuscript flew first class on British Airways. “VIPs regularly travel across the pond with us,” noted airline captain Ian Aird to the Independent, “but . . . the Magna Carta and the King’s Writ are definitely one of the most precious pieces of cargo we’ve ever had the honor of carrying.”
One of the four extant copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta made a similar transatlantic trip last summer, visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, before returning to the UK for a reunion with the other three copies.
After its short stay in New York, the show will visit China, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, and Singapore.
“Magna Carta 800: Sharing the Legacy of Freedom” is on view at the New York Historical Society, September 23–September 30, 2015.
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