How Badly Would Nic Cage Have Ruined the Declaration of Independence in ‘National Treasure’?
It’s been 18 years since the release of National Treasure — aka The DaVinci Code, But America! — and people still seem to enjoy watching the exploits of Nicolas Cage’s patriotic treasure hunter, Benjamin Gates. The franchise’s stubborn refusal to die continues with the new Disney+ series National Treasure: Edge of History, which weirdly doesn’t seem to feature Nicolas Cage at all — unless we get some sort of surprise cameo or a scene where a character pops in a DVD of Con Air.
Of course, the most iconic part of the original National Treasure is the sequence of Gates breaking into the National Archives and stealing the Declaration of Independence, which secretly contains clues to a lost treasure. Importantly, Gates doesn’t just steal the document for financial gain but because he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of *gasp* a British person. Yup, a rival tea-swilling treasure hunter also has his sights set on pilfering the Declaration of Independence, and who knows what damage that treacherous red coat could cause to such a valuable document?!?!
But was the Declaration of Independence any better off with Gates/Cage?
To find out, I spoke with Kyla Ubbink, a professional conservator and the owner of Ubbink Book and Paper Conservation.
For starters, a prime indication that Gates was treating the document respectfully and with care may have, in reality, been both unnecessary and potentially problematic. When Gates and his pals are examining the document, they do so while wearing white cotton gloves. As Ubbink tells me, gloves are typically used with paper, but the Declaration of Independence is parchment, meaning it’s made of animal skin. So while it’s essential to wear gloves with paper, to protect it from “oils and acids in your hands,” with parchment, “as long as your hands are clean, it’s fine to handle it with your bare hands. It’s skin on skin.”
In fact, it’s actually better to handle the parchment with clean, bare hands because, as Ubbink explains, “We don’t wear gloves while we work because we have to have our tactile feel. We have to be able to feel what we’re working on.” At one point in the movie, Diane Kruger’s character, Dr. Abigail Chase, applies lemon juice (more on that in a moment) to the Declaration while wearing gloves — which is a bad idea. “If you’re trying to do it with white cotton gloves,” Ubbink says, “you’re likely going to drop the Q-tip, push too hard — it’s going to flip, and something bad is going to happen.”
As for the lemon juice, which reveals the secret message, putting aside the movie’s failure to grasp a grade school science experiment, the lemon juice itself isn’t inherently an issue; it’s “the wetness of the lemon juice that would cause problems.” According to Ubbink: “Moisture and heat cause parchment to expand and contract really rapidly. It reacts so quickly to changes just in the temperature and humidity in the air without actually putting a liquid on or a hair dryer to it. Just your normal ambient climate changes will cause parchment to expand and contract.” So the act of getting the parchment wet would cause it to “swell in those areas,” and blasting them with a hair dryer would leave the whole thing full of “waves“ and “creases,“ which would have been “disastrous“ for the document.
In Gates’ defense, he originally planned to take the Declaration of Independence to a secure lab, but his cover was blown, forcing him to relocate to his dad’s dining room table, last seen housing a grease-soaked pizza box — so it’s possible that, in said lab, Gates might have been more prepared with a “vapor chamber, where he could have humidified the whole documents instead of these local areas that would have caused the waving.“
Regardless, by that point, Gates would have already done significant damage to the Declaration of Independence. Remember how he escapes by rolling it up and passing it off as a souvenir poster?
Yeah, it turns out that wouldn’t be so awesome. “Absolutely horrific,“ Ubbink says, pointing to the moment when Gates tucked it under his jacket like a box of Milk Duds he was sneaking into a movie theater and not a 200-year-old historical artifact.
Although this would have likely caused creases, the act of rolling is “especially“ bad for parchment, because “the ink with parchment is just sitting on the surface. The problem with rolling is you could actually flake the ink right off of it in that rolling process.“ By simply rolling up the document, Gates could have severely compromised the text, including the secret messages he was passionately searching for.
Worse yet, in a later scene, Gates unrolls the parchment and then rolls it back up again, by hand, with no table (when there are several nearby), which “would cause so much, so much damage to happen to the piece,“ especially since the ink on the Declaration of Independence is “already very faded.“ Not to mention all the “additional light.“ While preserved in a UV-filtered case in the National Archives, Gates and his pals are just whipping out the Declaration of Independence in a room filled with daylight.
All in all, it’s likely that when Gates was finished, the document would have “no writing left at all anymore. It would have been pretty disastrous.“ Presumably, National Treasure 3 will find Benjamin Gates sneezing all over “American Gothic“ and letting Harrison Ford take the Spirit of St. Louis for a spin.
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