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.