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Can you tell the story of Lincoln’s presidency without chronology?

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re getting ready for a pretty big construction project here at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  After adding some new exhibit space, a kids’  learning lab, a programming and a collection processing room, and making other structural improvements to the building, we’ll move to the most exciting renovation phase: new exhibits on Lincoln’s presidential years in our second and third galleries.  Along with an overhaul of our Civil War displays, this will complete the transformation of our permanent galleries that we began last year, when we installed a new exhibit on Lincoln’s life before the presidency.

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam. From the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The first step in creating a new exhibit is deciding how you want to organize the material.  We knew from the outset that we’d start out with his nomination and end up at Ford’s Theatre, but we didn’t plan on a strictly chronological path between the two.  Our early outlines took a more topical approach, with sections on emancipation, Lincoln as commander-in-chief, civil liberties under his administration, his family’s private life in the White House, and so on.

But when you’re dealing with the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency, there are points where a topical approach mucks things up.  As James McPherson noted in his preface to Battle Cry of Freedom, you run into problems when you try to break the Civil War era into self-contained subjects without recourse to narrative or chronology.  Political, military, economic, and diplomatic events were inextricably interrelated.  Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was all tangled up with the course of the war, from Union reversals in the summer of 1862 to Lee’s check at Antietam that fall.  Similarly, it’s hard to explain Lincoln’s re-election without making sense of the military situation in 1864.

Lincoln’s own development also calls for a more chronological approach.  His attitudes toward the war changed so much between 1861 and 1865 that it’s difficult to speak of “Lincoln’s policy on emancipation” or “Lincoln’s policy on Reconstruction” apart from the specific crucibles that shaped those policies.  One of the big ideas we want to convey is how the war transformed his thinking, and how he himself became a transformative agent as his willingness to wield presidential power shifted.

Lincoln claimed that events had controlled him rather than the other way around, and whether that’s accurate or not, the fact that he believed it means you have to take those events into account when you’re trying to explain why he did what he did.

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ALLM takes home TAM awards

I’m delighted to report that the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum received a number of awards at this year’s Tennessee Association of Museums conference.  Our Civil War STEAM event and Skype in the Vault program earned Awards of Excellence, and our new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls received an Award of Commendation.  The big news, though, is this: Civil War STEAM received the prestigious Past Presidents Award.

Needless to say, I’m very proud of my staff, and very grateful for this recognition by our colleagues in the museum field.  Kudos especially to Program Coordinator Natalie Sweet, who was the dynamo behind the STEAM event.  Big thanks also to Owen Design Group and 1220 Exhibits, who made Log Walls into a reality for us.

And hats off to TAM for putting on the most enjoyable, collegial, and helpful museum conference I’ve ever attended.  See you folks again next year!

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Back to blogging with a look at some NMAI artifacts

Well, folks…it’s been a while.

Between running a museum that’s about to undergo a major renovation and trying to write a dissertation, the blog obviously fell by the wayside there for a few weeks.  I’m going to try to get back in the habit.

One of the reasons I slacked off was the fact that my job has me on the road quite a bit.  Luckily, however, it takes me to some really great places.  Every February, LMU sends a delegation to Washington, D.C. to participate in a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s a great opportunity to hit some museums.

This year I visited the National Museum of the American Indian.  I particularly enjoyed the Nation to Nation exhibit, which examines the history of treaty-making between tribes and the U.S.

Let’s take a look at some artifacts.

Seventeenth-century Lenape wampum belts.  The lower one belonged to William Penn:

A Creek bandolier bag, reportedly captured at Horseshoe Bend:

A hide painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass:

Serape belonging to William T. Sherman.  He probably got it in 1868, around the time he was negotiating the Treaty of Bosque Redondo with the Navajo:

A relic of forced acculturation.  Uniform from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School:

Nineteenth-century reservation ration cards and beaded card holder:

Painted shields from the days of the Plains conflicts:

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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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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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