Category Archives: Abraham Lincoln

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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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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Archivist job opportunity at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

We’re looking for an archivist and librarian to join our team at one of the nation’s best repositories of Lincoln and Civil War material.  If you’ve got a master’s degree in library science; a background in archival work with manuscripts, photos, prints, and rare books and pamphlets; and an interest in nineteenth-century American history, then click here for more information.  I’d especially encourage those of you with knowledge of PastPerfect software and experience in digitization to apply.

And if you’re in the public history or archival field, please feel free to share this opening as widely as possible.

 

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February happenings at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

February is usually a big month at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  Here are a few events we’ve got planned for the next few weeks, and admission is free to every single one.

  • Thursday, Feb. 1 is the fifth installment of our free lecture and discussion series Of the People, By the People, For the People, which uses Lincoln’s writings as a springboard for thinking about citizenship and the Constitution.
  • Ever wanted to see some of the stuff we don’t keep on display?  Feb. 3 is a rare chance to get a glimpse inside the vault, with special presentations every half hour starting at 1:00 p.m.  Our archivist will be showing off a few of the many items that aren’t on permanent exhibit, and we’ll give you a peek behind the scenes to see how we preserve our manuscript collections and get a close-up look at some of our most precious and delicate artifacts.
  • To celebrate Black History Month, we’re hosting a weekly film series devoted to dramatizations of African American history.  We’ll be kicking things off with The Help on Tuesday, Feb. 6, followed on successive Tuesday nights by Lincoln, Loving, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The screenings are free, and we’ll be serving up popcorn.
  • Interested in learning more about online history resources?  On Thursday, Feb. 8 we’ll help you find your way around UNC’s Documenting the American South database at our monthly Community Digital History Workshop.  DocSouth is a gold mine; I’ve made extensive use of it over the years.  If you’re a teacher, researcher, or genealogist who’s just getting started in historical databases, this session will come in quite handy.
  • The Feb. 13 installment of our monthly Tad’s Tots program for kids ages 0-5 will spotlight the Underground Railroad.
  • President’s Day weekend is, as you might imagine, a pretty big deal for us.  On Friday, Feb. 16 at 6:00 p.m., Dr. Jason Silverman will lecture on Lincoln and nineteenth-century immigration, the subject of his 2015 book.  We’ll have copies available for signing.
  • On Saturday, Feb. 17 you can join us as we belatedly celebrate Lincoln’s birthday with cake, kids’ activities, and a look back at LMU’s connection to the film Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
  • Even if you can’t make one of our events, February is still a great time to visit, because we offer free weekend admission all month.

If you’d like more info about any of these events, give us a call at (423) 869-6235, contact our Program Director by phone at (423) 869-6607, or shoot her an email at natalie.sweet@LMUnet.edu.

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