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Founding documents to go back on display at National Archives | (KRT) The country's founding documents have returned to the glistening marble rotunda of the National Archives following a two-year restoration, during which the parchments and exhibition space were off-limits to the public.

At a rededication ceremony Wednesday, leaders from each branch of government spoke about the value of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which together represent the foundation of American government.

Standing in front of the recently re-unveiled Constitution, President Bush spoke about the wisdom contained in what some call the charters of freedom, and he described their enduring role as defining "America's purposes in the world."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., added, "These are the three most powerful documents in the history of the world. The American story is a story about the power and triumph of ideas, bold ideas like those contained in these documents."

The National Archives building has long been among the most popular tourist sites in Washington, with 1 million to 1.25 million visitors expected next year.

Bush praised the team that who worked on the painstaking job of restoring the documents, which remain fragile and faded.

The restoration process began in 1995, when fissures in the documents' glass encasements were discovered, said Doris Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the archives.

In the following years, the archives searched for money to reconstruct the rotunda's entryway and the 1952-era encasements. Plans were also made to retouch the animal-skin documents and murals on the curved walls of the rotunda.

Ultimately, private and public donors funded the renovation, which totaled $100 million.

As part of the renovation, the encasement glass was made clear, thin and less reflective, unlike its nearly opaque, thick predecessor. The cases are filled with argon to keep pressure on the documents - 300 pounds of the gas per linear inch - which discourages warping and cracking.

Before the renovation, the ink on the documents was beginning to lift away, like shingles on a roof after a windstorm. Conservators including Hamburg inserted thin, gelatinlike glue to secure the letters to the page. As much of the centuries-old dirt as possible was removed, and tears along the documents' edges were filled in.

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Because the contours of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution had changed over time, they had to be humidified and flattened.

The massive 340-pound oil paintings above the documents were also restored. "The Declaration of Independence" shows Thomas Jefferson submitting that document to John Hancock, while "The Constitution," depicts James Madison handing the charter to George Washington.

A team of five conservators smoothed out the paintings' air pockets and cleaned off excess adhesive and grime.

When the rejuvenated documents are open to public view, all four pages of the Constitution will be displayed for the first time. Previously, only the first and last pages had been exhibited. Due to the approach of Hurricane Isabel, a celebratory ceremony scheduled for Thursday evening was canceled and the rotunda was to be closed Thursday if the Metro shuts down for the storm.

Speakers at the rededication Wednesday, including Bush, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and other congressional leaders, stood to the side of the Constitution as they made comments that reflected today's political battles.

Bush talked about the values expressed in the documents in relation to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We will see freedom's power in the Middle East," Bush said. "America owns the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but the ideals they proclaim belong to all mankind."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hinted at critics' view that the administration has curtailed basic rights in its pursuit of terrorists. "We cannot allow civil liberties, promised in the Constitution, to be compromised during times of war," Pelosi said.

Hastert stressed the need to remain vigilant in wartime, including the war on terrorism. "We have to do all that we can to protect these freedoms from those who would try to take them away," he said. "This war may be long, it may be ugly and it may be expensive, but history is on our side."

Politics aside, the archivists and conservators consider the renovation and rededication of the rotunda a high point in the history of the National Archives.

Next year, the building, which houses more than 4 billion pieces of paper and more than 10 million pictures, will open a new documentary-based theater and introduce multi-language audio guides.

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services