Category Archives: Museums and Historic Sites

The new Tennessee State Museum opens this week

Here’s the schedule for the grand opening, for you lucky dogs making the trip to Nashville.

And here’s a breakdown of the permanent exhibits:

  • Tennessee Time Tunnel, which seems to be a sort of port of entry to the other galleries, sort of like Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Natural History
  • First Peoples, from the end of the last Ice Age to 1760
  • Forging a Nation, from 1760 to 1860
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Change and Challenge, from 1870 through World War II
  • Tennessee Transforms, 1945 to the present

If it seems odd that the Civil War and Reconstruction get a whole gallery to themselves, bear in mind that the TSM’s Civil War collection is huge. And the old building’s exhibits didn’t include anything at all on much of the twentieth century, so it looks like we’ll be getting a much broader, fuller examination of the state’s history in this new setup.

Still, the prospect of covering the whole century between the Anglo-Cherokee War and Lincoln’s election as a single unit seems like quite an undertaking.  Of course, I’m partial to the period between the late 1760s and the collapse of the State of Franklin, so I wouldn’t want to see it get short shrift.  One thing I adored about the old TSM was its extensive treatment of the frontier.  The “Forging a Nation” gallery includes a Rev War exhibit, and I hope that means all those wonderful King’s Mountain relics are still on display.  Anyway, I can’t wait to get over there and see the new place for myself.

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Mary Todd Lincoln without the caricature

We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life.  I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.

Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing.  Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space.  The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing.  And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible.  Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons

She was undeniably volatile.  She shouted.  She screamed.  She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors.  She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes.  She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.

Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.”  His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”

But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage.  Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.”  Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”

And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to.  He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone.  (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)

Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress.  He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read.  He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them.  When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.

If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story.  They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).

At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded.  As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story.  We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature.  Some depictions have stooped to this level.  In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.

What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance.  That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel.  A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary.  We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.

Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history.  The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy.  And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.

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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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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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