Tag Archives: museums

When we said the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum was getting a total renovation, we weren’t kidding

We meant total—from the roof down to the floor.

The only thing we haven’t moved is our plaster copy of Paul Manship’s Hoosier Youth statue.  It’s too darn big to pack up.  Instead, the construction crew built a crate around it to keep it safe and sound while the work’s going on.

Outside, the new elevator shaft is taking shape.  On either side will be the new galleries, learning lab, collections processing room, and restrooms.

As for exhibits, we’re hard at work on those, too.  The Kincaid Gallery we opened last year will be back, but all the other galleries will have new stuff.  The National Constitution Center exhibit Lincoln, the Constitution, and the Civil War will be moving downstairs, this time with some fantastic objects from our own permanent collection.  Upstairs will be a new display of Civil War weapons, uniforms, and medical artifacts.  We’re also developing a new exhibit on Lincoln’s final days.  And, of course, we’ll roll out brand new permanent exhibits in the spaces that are under construction—one on the ways Americans have remembered Lincoln, and another on the history of our parent institution.

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Museum conferences vs. academic conferences

Some co-workers and I were talking about conferences recently—namely, how enjoyable and beneficial museum conferences are.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend both academic history conferences and conferences aimed at museum professionals, mostly because my own professional background has straddled the divide between academic and public history.  My training has followed the route usually taken by academics, but a lot of my work experience has been in public history.

Here are some of the differences between academic history conferences and museum conferences that I’ve found most striking:

  • Museum conferences are far more collaborative.  You get the sense that you’re part of a group of people who are all engaged in the same enterprise, and they’re getting together to help each other out.  It’s not about listening to individual presenters report on the results of their separate investigations. It’s about sharing hard-won experiential knowledge that attendees can reapply to their own situations.
  • On a related note, museum conferences are far more practical. In most sessions, practitioners discuss how they’ve tackled problems that are common to the profession, and they explain what worked and what didn’t. You leave armed with stuff you can use.
  • Museum conference presentations are far more engaging.  You’re unlikely to hear a single paper read verbatim.  Even single-presenter sessions are geared more toward facilitating a conversation than conveying information from presenter to recipients.
  • Museum conferences tend to be less cliquish.  I don’t mean “cliquish” to come across as pejorative as it sounds.  I just mean that I’ve noticed more cross-pollination between different groups at museum conferences than at academic ones.  I should note that there are exceptions to this.  I once attended a large conference for presidential history sites, and it was interesting to see how the various sub-groups coalesced.  Folks from the big Founders’ homes tended to hang out together, as did people from the Gilded Age presidential sites, people from the twentieth-century presidents’ libraries, etc.  But I don’t see as much self-sorting of this kind at museum conferences as I do at academic conferences of comparable size.
  • For what it’s worth—and, again, this is a totally unscientific conclusion drawn solely from personal observation—museum conferences I’ve attended have been more gender-balanced. Not long ago I went to a museum conference with a session aimed specifically at site directors—that is, people in positions of executive leadership at their respective institutions.  I’d say the audience was at least 85% women, and the panel itself consisted solely of women.  Now, I should stress that I’m not saying the museum profession doesn’t have problems with gender inequities in promotions, pay, and hiring.  It does, even though women make up a majority of U.S. museum employees.  But let me ask you this: If a regional academic history conference offered a session specifically for full tenured professors, what would be the odds that women would make up 80% or more of the attendees?

Not to put too fine a point on anything, but I think the world of academia could learn a thing or two about conferences from museum people.

Michigan History Museum. Photo by Michael Barera [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons

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The problems with presidential libraries

Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.

Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine.  It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.

Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves.  This can lead to tension over control of the programming.  The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal.  The history is often recent and raw.

To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders.  In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content.  As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:

The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.

There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:

I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.

Nixon’s presidential limousine at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Happyme22 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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Some TV coverage of ALLM’s closing and expansion project

The folks at WBIR stopped by on Saturday to cover our closing event and the upcoming expansion.  Enjoy!

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ALLM is going into hibernation, and then coming back bigger than ever

This week is your last chance to visit the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum before we close for our big renovation and expansion project.  We’re throwing a celebration on Saturday, July 20 from 10:00 to 6:00 with free admission, refreshments, a special glimpse inside our manuscript vault, and major discounts on items in our gift shop.  If any of you folks are within driving distance of the Cumberland Gap area, I hope to see some of you there.

And I definitely hope to see lots of you visit the expanded museum when this project is done.  We’ve got big changes in store, both inside and out: brand new exhibits on Lincoln in memory and the history of Lincoln Memorial University, some updates to our current gallery spaces, a learning lab, improved visitor access, a new front entrance, outdoor experiences, and more.  It’s going to take quite a while to get it all in place; we’ll probably reopen in late 2020.  But it should be well worth the wait.

Until then, I’ll be posting info about the project along with my usual history effusions here at my blog.  And we’ll have regular updates on the ALLM’s official Facebook and Twitter.

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The story you want to cover vs. the artifacts you have

Glenn David Brasher paid a visit to the newly opened American Civil War Museum in Richmond.  His review is mostly positive, with a notable caveat:

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

I assume this dissonance between narrative and artifacts is due to the nature of the ACWM’s collection, much of which probably consists of militaria from the Museum of the Confederacy.  When an institution’s collection has been accumulating for decades, it takes time for the acquisitions to catch up with changes in academic or interpretive trends.

We’re actually wrestling with similar dilemmas at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  We’re getting ready to break ground on our big expansion and renovation project, which will in turn enable us to make further changes to our permanent galleries.  The biggest of these will be a new exhibit on Lincoln’s presidency.  One of the themes we feel compelled to explore in this exhibit is the transformative nature of that presidency—how Lincoln’s use of presidential power changed the office, the nature of the Civil War, and the nation.

Like most museum collections, ours has its particular strengths and weaknesses, and not all of our strengths play to the content we want to include in the new exhibit.  For example, we’ve got a lot of great artifacts from, say, the election of 1860 and Lincoln’s funeral, but precious little we could use to trace Lincoln’s evolving position on emancipation from spring 1861 to summer 1862.  (I mean, we’ve got a ton of popular prints and cartoons illustrating American responses to the Emancipation Proclamation, but not much that shows Lincoln’s internal reasoning for changing a war for the Union as it was into a war for a new birth of freedom.)

Of course, we’ve got ideas to meet these challenges.  After all, figuring out creative ways to convey historical information through exhibits is part of the job.  But when we finally raise the curtain on our new permanent exhibit, there will inevitably be an imbalance in the number of artifacts per narrative section.

It’s a bit frustrating, since building narratives out of objects is what museums do—or at least it’s the thing they do that other for of communication don’t.  But this is a dilemma that I think museums professionals are going to deal with more and more.  Expectations for more well-rounded and inclusive narratives will continue to grow, and older institutions will continue to transform from showplaces for relics into places that more fully reflect the breadth of their respective disciplines.

Lincoln-Douglas debate section of the Kincaid Gallery, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

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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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