More strange but true tales from public history

While we’re on the subject of befuddled tourists, check out Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles for a horror story from Little Bighorn.

Since people seem to have gotten a kick out of the Legend of Virginia Beach, here are a few other anecdotes from the good old days when I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War museum. Once again, these stories are all, unfortunately, true.

  • When I was an undergraduate intern, one of the first projects with which I was involved was an exhibit on black troops in the Union Army. One day a visitor marched into the lobby in a huff and demanded to know why that exhibit didn’t include any information about Confederate soldiers.
  • On a related note, another guy once asked why the museum—the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, mind you—didn’t give equal space to Jefferson Davis.
  • I answered my phone one morning and took a call from a gentleman who demanded to speak to the museum’s director in order to correct him on a point of history. When I asked him to be a little more specific, he told me that he had watched an interview with the director on C-SPAN and took issue with a remark about Lincoln’s presidency. Turned out he thought he’d called the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. I gave him their main number and wished him good luck. That was back when Richard Norton Smith was running the ALPLM; I wonder if the guy ever managed to get hold of him. If he did…sorry about that, Dr. Smith.
  • A woman sent us a letter with detailed recommendations about improving the tours we offered to school groups. She suggested we give each child a kepi, a uniform coat, and a toy musket to take home with them. Alas, she didn’t suggest how we should pay for all this.
  • A visitor asked me if we ever “got into trouble” for having a Lincoln museum in a Confederate state. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked him with whom we could have gotten into trouble. The guys who hanged the East Tennessee bridge burners in 1861, maybe?
  • A surprisingly large number of visitors informed me that they were direct descendants of Lincoln, whose last undisputed descendant died in 1985.
  • Another surprising thing was the number of panicked high school students who e-mailed me to ask if I could send them “all the stuff you have about Abraham Lincoln” for an assignment. Conscientious fellow that I am, I eventually put together a standardized packet of material for these requests. I didn’t manage to get “all the stuff” we had into it, but in my defense, that would’ve been a heck of a lot of stuff.
  • Finally, here’s the only story that rivals the one about the Virginia Beach guy. One of the items in the museum’s collection is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Painted by her niece Katherine Helm in 1925, it depicts Mary as she would have appeared on her wedding day. Two ladies came out of the gallery one day and informed me that the exhibit label for this painting contained a typographical error. Surely, they said, Mary Todd Lincoln was dead by 1925. Indeed she was; it had not occurred to them that artists occasionally paint pictures of people who are no longer alive. When I pointed this out, they remarked that they had “fixed it.” Alarmed, I ran to the gallery and looked at the label. Sure enough, one of them had taken an ink pen, marked an “X” over the date, and written “1825” above it. (For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not get married in 1825. Child marriage never really took off in nineteenth-century Lexington.)

I don’t want you to get the impression that my basic attitude toward visitors was one of disdain. I miss doing public history, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to share the past with people on a daily basis. These days, when I find myself at a museum or a site, I’m the one on the other side of the admission counter. I just hope I never take an ink pen to a label.

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3 Comments

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

3 responses to “More strange but true tales from public history

  1. . . . they remarked that they had “fixed it.”

    I can’t compete with that one, but one day when I was working at the Texas Maritime Museum, I fielded a phone call from a local resident, nearly incoherent with rage that we were “flying the flag of a communist country” on the museum grounds. He explained he’d actually gone down to city hall to complain about this, only to be told that the city had nothing to do with the funding or operation of the museum, and perhaps he should take it up with us directly. It turns out he was upset that we were displaying a replica Texas Navy ensign which he mistook for the national flag of Liberia, which was then undergoing a civil war.

    Confusing those two flags is understandable, but the vituperative rage wasn’t. I’m not sure he ever believed my explanation, and I never did find out why he thought we’d be flying a Liberian flag.

    • Michael Lynch

      What’s scary is that he had enough sense to know about Liberia, but not enough to know that a museum in Texas would have no reason to fly it.

      –ML

  2. Pingback: More strange but true tales from public history | Past in the Present « VanRanke and Droysen

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