Alas, I did not have the foresight to start this blog with Week 1, back in July 2010, but I will try to bring the blog up to date in separate posts.
Like so many others, I am fascinated by Abraham Lincoln, and given that Ford’s Theatre is free to visit and near several Metro stations, I’m actually surprised I didn’t visit sooner. It’s been on my short list for a while; I just hadn’t made it happen yet.
But January 2011 may be a particularly poignant time to visit this museum.
I visited on Martin Luther King Day, and while the content of the museum predates King by a century, the museum does, of course, address the themes of institutionalized racism, oppression, and the struggle for equality. As I walked through, an elementary school-aged visitor nearby emphatically repeated, “Daddy, I would hate to be a slave!”
Furthermore, though the museum shows several angles of Lincoln’s life (including Civil War military history, the political context, and family life and life in the White House), the idea of violence against public officials does not just arise suddenly at the end, when we come to Lincoln’s death. Instead, this theme is present throughout; threats and unsuccessful plots are a specter following Lincoln long before his fatal encounter with John Wilkes Booth. In fact, upon entering the museum section from the lobby, the visitor almost immediately encounters a display of weapons that Lincoln’s bodyguard wished him to carry with him at all times for self-defense.
As the text notes, a detective also responsible for protecting Lincoln objected, for he “would not for the world have it said that Mr. Lincoln had to enter the National Capital armed.”
Later in the museum, the visitor learns of a bullet that Lincoln barely escaped: it went through his top hat. The wall text tells us that Lincoln laughed the incident off, but no one else did.
All of this foreshadows the dramatic real-life ending: the last exhibits detail the last day of Lincoln’s life, hour by hour, for both Lincoln and Booth. We see excerpts from Booth’s diary (he expected to be hailed as a hero), objects involved in the assassination, and statues of Booth and his co-conspirators.
(As an aside, another child’s reaction that I overheard: a little girl could not understand why a bullet going through Lincoln’s head killed him. Her grown-up, and a park ranger, kept explaining that it was like being hit with a really, really hard rock going really, really fast.)
I viewed all these exhibits in the context of January 2011, when the news is full of the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona: the wounding (and fortunately unsuccessful assassination plot) of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the deaths of six others present, the combing through gunman Jared Loughner’s belongings to try to understand what led to this, and of course the haste to find one thing to blame and one quick fix (either lax gun control OR mental illness OR violent political rhetoric is the culprit!).
The parallels between the events depicted in Ford’s Theatre, and the events that have recently happened, are clear (though surely plenty of differences would emerge in an examination of the details; my point is that violence against elected leaders was an issue then and is an issue now). A ranger walked the museum floor asking visitors if they had questions and providing information about the objects, but I did not hear him bring up this topic.
This leaves me wondering, do museums like Ford’s Theatre have a unique role they can play in addressing these tragedies when they arise in our own times? Is this an opportunity for a museum to help audiences make sense of and have a dialogue about such issues? Or would doing so appear tacky, as though they are merely trying to capitalize on a tragedy?
Perhaps the solution would be not to jump up in response to an event like the shooting spree in Tucson, but to weave these questions into programming all the time, whether or not they seem particularly salient. Violence, after all, continues to be a problem in our times–not just this month. And a successful museum helps visitors make connections between the content and their own lives.
Ford’s Theatre does do plenty of this. A variety of components are employed in the exhibits: text, objects, multimedia, little books one can flip through that struck me for their sturdiness. One panel invites visitors to look over Lincoln’s shoulder as he works. There are ample statues and photographs of the players involved in these dramas, and a velvet curtain here and a pile of shattered bricks there help set the scenes. The theatre is still a theatre, too, and I was able to walk among the seats and see the balcony where Lincoln sat, which is now permanently blocked off as a sort of memorial that can be seen but not sat in.