The Kincaid Gallery is coming together

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum won’t be re-opening until the end of this month.  But here’s a look at what’s been going in the Kincaid Gallery, where our new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls is under construction.

A new gallery entrance:

Just inside the entryway is a recreated section of the Kentucky cabin where Abraham Lincoln was a child.  Pretty soon, it’ll be home to an original corner cupboard built by his father, Thomas.

When this case is assembled, visitors will peer inside and get a glimpse back in time at one of our WPA dioramas.

Graphics and labels waiting to go up:

A couple of the big artifacts are already in place.  One of the first things visitors will see is our magnificent Gutzon Borglum bust…

…and one of the last is this 1858 flag, a relic from Lincoln’s campaign against Stephen Douglas.

The folks from Owen Design Group and 1220 Exhibits have done amazing work in making this dream a reality.  We’re delighted to see this project nearing completion.

But we’re also eager to tell the rest of Lincoln’s story, and the story of the war over which he presided.  Click here to learn how you can help make it happen.

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Nominating Lincoln…in miniature

The diorama is still one of the most effective gimmicks in the museum business.  You can lose yourself in these little worlds behind glass.  Maybe it’s the fact that they’re three-dimensional.

In 1939, the Work Projects Administration funded the creation of twenty dioramas depicting scenes from Abraham Lincoln’s life for the Chicago Historical Society.  Painstaking research and craftsmanship went into each one.  Some fifty artists spent two years putting them together.

Today we have five of these masterpieces on exhibit at the ALLM.  Visitors (especially kids) are invariably drawn to them, like metal shavings to magnets.

Let’s take a look at one of the scenes.  It’s May 19, 1860.  We’re inside the parlor of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield home.  The Republican Party has just concluded its second national convention in Chicago.  A delegation has arrived by train to inform Lincoln that he’s the party’s nominee for president.

George Ashmun of Massachusetts is handing Lincoln the official letter of nomination.

The décor is historically accurate to a middle-class Victorian home.  In fact, the wallpaper matches the actual design used in the Lincolns’ parlor.  Check out that exquisite little flower under glass in the corner…

…and the tiny books on the shelf.

The attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing.  There’s a miniature picket fence affixed to the exterior of the back wall, just in case a viewer should decide to peer through the windows.  It’s hardly visible from the front; most visitors probably don’t notice it.  I had no idea it was there until the first time I saw the diorama from the back.

The Lincoln figure looks pretty solemn, but there was a bit of levity to the proceedings.  The nominee asked William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania—I think he’s the fellow standing between Ashmun and Lincoln—how tall he was.  Kelley was 6’3″.

“I beat you,” Lincoln said,  “I am six feet four without my high-heeled boots.”

Kelley had a sense of humor.  “Pennsylvania bows to Illinois,” he replied.  “I am glad that we have found a candidate for the Presidency whom we can look up to.”

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Tremendous changes are coming to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

I’ve been lucky to be a part of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on and off and in one capacity or another since my undergrad days—as a student intern, a curatorial assistant, and now as the museum’s director.  Back when I was an intern, our curator Steven Wilson used to say, “A museum is a communication device.”  The ALLM has been in the communication business for a long time.  For more than forty years, we’ve been telling the story of Abraham Lincoln and his era.

Now we’re transforming the way we tell that story.  We’ve got big plans.  Let me tell you what’s in the works, and how you can help us bring it all to completion.

Thanks to a very generous gift from the estate of Hansel and Dorothy Kincaid, we’ve been working with a fantastic team of exhibit designers and fabricators to completely overhaul one of our permanent galleries.  That effort will finally be finished next month.  We’ll unveil our exhibition Log Walls to Marble Halls in the newly renamed and renovated Kincaid Gallery.  This exhibit examines Lincoln’s rise to national prominence, from his humble ancestry to the eve of his nomination for the presidency.

We’ll have more of our remarkable collection on display than ever before, taking visitors on a journey through Lincoln’s pre-presidential years using state-of-the-art exhibitry.

A few days ago we saw some of the finished graphic panels, cases, and other elements for the first time.  I can’t overstate how excited we are.  This gallery is going to be beautiful, and we can’t wait to show it off.

But Log Walls to Marble Halls is just the first chapter of the story we need to tell.  We want to bring our other exhibits up to the same modern standard as the Kincaid Gallery.  We’ve got to complete the saga of Lincoln’s life story with a permanent exhibit on his presidency, his management of the war, and his transformative vision for America.  And we’ve got to tell the other stories in our collection—the story of the Civil War as ordinary soldiers and civilians experienced it, the story of how the world has commemorated Lincoln in art and entertainment—not to mention our own story, the story of how such a remarkable Lincoln/Civil War collection ended up at a college in the mountains of Appalachia.

Telling these stories will take a lot of space.  That’s why we’re drawing up plans for a major expansion that will nearly double the size of our other permanent galleries.  And we need to make other improvements to the facility to ensure that our collection remains as secure and accessible as possible for many years to come.

Fortunately, we’ve got an opportunity to make it happen.  We have an astounding offer of $1 million from the Kincaid estate, provided we can raise an additional million to match it.

We’re already well on our way to meeting this goal, and we invite your participation.  If you’d like to help us complete the transformation of the ALLM, you can donate to the Kincaid $1 Million Matching Challenge online or by sending a check to LMU.  And if you have any questions about the campaign or you’d like more information about our plans for the museum, please feel free to contact us.

We appreciate your support.  And we look forward to sharing the Lincoln story in with you in exciting new ways!

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Recommended reading from the ALLM staff

Remember a few months ago when I posted this?

Maybe there’s a way to incorporate “teachable moments” into visitors’ gift shop browsing. Some chain bookstores have staff recommendation sections where the displays include a brief message from employees about why particular books appealed to them. Maybe museum shops should set aside some shelf space where curators and staff historians could highlight especially good works in their fields, complete with blurbs about why each title appeals to them. Besides encouraging people to pick up solid works, it would have the added benefit of putting a human face on the staff, allowing them to engage visitors on a personal level without even setting foot outside their offices.

Well, we’re going to give it a try at the ALLM, at the suggestion of our program coordinator, Natalie Sweet.  We’ve selected a few of our favorite books from the gift shop and added personalized blurbs to the shelf display.  Maybe it’ll prompt visitors to give these titles an extra look and foster their own independent historical studies.

Natalie picked Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln.  It was the first Lincoln book she read as a kid.  Her note to visitors explains why it made an impression on her.

Steven Wilson, our curator, recommended The Wilderness Road.  It’s an engaging history of the museum’s neck of the woods by a former LMU president, first published in 1947.

And I decided to recommend Battle Cry of Freedom, still my favorite one-volume history of the Civil War.  We want visitors to leave hungry for more information about Lincoln’s era, and I think it’s as good a place to start as any.

If this little experiment works out, we might devote more shelf space to staff recommendations, and maybe get suggestions from the Civil War historians on the faculty.

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Ira Berlin, 1941-2018

One of the greats passed away yesterday.  Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America is an absolute classic, one of the most comprehensive, nuanced, and elegant studies ever written of slavery’s evolution across space and time. It appeared on more required reading lists than any other text my grad professors assigned.

The last time I was in a seminar to discuss Berlin’s book was my adviser’s Atlantic course. We couldn’t help but admire the deftness with which he balanced the power of structures against the power of agency, and the variety of American slave societies against their common trajectories. “It’s an art,” my adviser said. And Berlin was one heck of an artist.

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Chiseling out a dissertation topic

John Fea poses a question well worth considering: “Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.”

Never having served on any graduate admission committees, I can’t say whether a locked-in dissertation idea is a credit or a debit on an application.  But in terms of going through the process once you’ve been admitted to a program, I can share my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

As I’ve said before, I think the hiatus I took between finishing my master’s and starting a doctoral program has made my Ph.D. experience a lot more enjoyable.  Now that I’m in the dissertation stage, I’m even more glad to have had the benefit of that extra time reading and sharpening my research interests.

But I also think a certain malleability is necessary.  Your graduate coursework is all about initiation into a guild.  You’re learning what historians do, and how other historians have framed questions and figured out ways to answer them.  If that doesn’t have an impact on how you frame and answer your questions, then what’s the point of doing coursework?

When I started my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to study Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution.  I was interested in the centripetal forces that pulled them into the Revolution and the centrifugal forces that pushed them to its margins.  I had a topic, and I had some questions I wanted to answer.  But I wasn’t yet framing those questions precisely, and I didn’t have a clear plan of attack for finding answers to them.  That came later, with a lot of guidance from my adviser, conversations with other professors, and engaging with a lot of historiography in seminars.

You know that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo?  There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where these guys are dragging a massive block of marble into Rome.  When Michelangelo sees it, he says, “Look!  Moses…here in the marble.  Moses down from Sinai.  God’s anger in his eyes.”

I think one of the things that makes a good doctoral adviser is the ability to look at a student’s interests the way Michelangelo looked at that block of marble.  Somewhere in there is a viable research project that can contribute something to the field.  You might not be able to see it yet.  But a good adviser (and the other members of your committee) will be able to discern its outlines, and will help you figure out where to apply the chisel.

By Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

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