Many items in the Rhode Island archives, including the state’s copy of the Bill of Rights, are at risk of damage because they’re kept in a building that’s not meant for preserving rare, historic documents, according to an assessment released Tuesday.
There isn’t enough space to store or exhibit them properly, and water, light, dust and atmospheric pollution pose a risk to many of the items, according to the report by the Northeast Document Conservation Center. The collection has been housed since 1990 in a rented office building in a flood zone in downtown Providence.
An estimated 35% of the collection should be considered a high priority for conservation, the Andover, Massachusetts-based conservation center found. That includes the draft of the Bill of Rights sent to Rhode Island for its consideration, a map of the Revolutionary War Battle of Rhode Island and a printing of the Declaration of Independence from 1823.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who released the report, is advocating for $52 million to construct a new building for the archives. She would like to display the Bill of Rights, which is currently in a wooden box in storage.
“We have really important documents that tell the story of the making of the U.S. and of Rhode Island and we have an amazing opportunity to not only share these with our children and visitors to the state, but to really make this an anchor for cultural and historic tourism. These are assets that other states don’t have,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve made it a priority to make sure that we finally tackle their preservation and exhibition.”
Gorbea said the current location was only meant to be a temporary home because archival facilities require highly specialized electrical systems, climate and light control and security.
Gorbea asked for $5 million to be included in the fiscal year 2020 budget to begin the architectural and engineering work for a new building across from the Statehouse. She made the same request last year and didn’t get the money. Instead, the governor included just $100,000 in the fiscal year 2022 capital budget for the archives and asked Gorbea to explore the possibility of rehabilitating another state building.
Gorbea said she’ll look into it, but it may not be feasible to make that building conform to archival and museum standards.