Tag Archives: exhibits

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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Come and take Lincoln’s journey with us

I couldn’t be happier to announce that the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum‘s new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls is now open in our renovated Kincaid Gallery.  From now on, our visitors will get a more in-depth and engaging look at Lincoln’s life before the presidency than we’ve ever been able to offer before.

The emphasis is on Lincoln’s ascent from his frontier beginnings to the political and professional prominence he achieved by 1860, and how his ambition and lifelong habit of self-improvement reinforced his convictions about the American experiment, politics, and the escalating controversy over slavery.

Some of our most remarkable artifacts are back on display and looking better than ever, including a corner cupboard made by Abraham Lincoln’s father in Kentucky, a tea set used by the Lincoln family in their Springfield home (donated by Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant), a family portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, and a flag and campaign banners from Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas.

The exhibit also features other priceless pieces of our collection that haven’t been on public display in years, or are now on exhibit for the first time: scales from the Lincoln-Berry store in New Salem, rare campaign ribbons, sheet music, a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more.

I think this is the most exciting thing that’s happened at the ALLM since the place opened back in 1977.  It’s certainly the biggest thing we’ve done since I was an undergrad intern there many years ago, and something a lot of us have dreamed about for a long, long time.  I hope you’ll come and check it out.

And we’re just getting started.  If you’d like to help us finish transforming the way we tell the story of Lincoln and his era, consider a contribution to our capital campaign.

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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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ETHS goes into the trenches and in search of Sgt. York

I highly recommend you visit In the Footsteps of Sergeant York, the new special exhibit from the Museum of the American Military Experience at the East Tennessee Historical Society.  It strikes a neat balance between an intimate portrait of York himself and a broader examination of Tennesseans’ mobilization in the Great War as a whole, and takes you from York’s rural Fentress County home…

…to the trenches of the Western Front.

The exhibition also chronicles the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition’s use of GIS and archaeology to pinpoint the precise location of his famous attack at Hill 223 near Chatel-Chéhéry.  (You may recall that the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch hosted this part of the exhibit a few years ago, although ETHS has augmented it with additional material.)  The machine gun below is reportedly one of the weapons York captured, while the rounds in front of the helmet are among the artifacts the SYDE recovered from the battleground.

Fire from the machine gun nest York took out cut down six of his comrades, and artifacts excavated from their original burial site are also on display.

As fascinating as the Chatel-Chéhéry items are, though, the object that struck me the most is this canteen carried by Fred O. Stone.  Like my great-grandfather, he was a Claiborne County, TN native who graduated from Lincoln Memorial University’s old medical school in Knoxville.

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A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

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