Museum Mission: We engage the public in an exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership and ideas, and preserve President Lincoln’s Cottage to nurture reflection and discourse on liberty, justice, and equality.
President Lincoln’s Cottage is located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC. My visit began in the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center with a short video, followed by a one-hour tour of the cottage where the Lincoln family lived in the summers and early autumns of Lincoln’s presidency. The tour guide at President Lincoln’s Cottage focused on a theme: Abraham Lincoln’s belief that everyone has the right to benefit from their hard work. It was a theme manifested in both the tour of the house and in the exhibits and gift shop of the visitor center.
Lincoln had a sense of American exceptionalism based on the idea that anyone could benefit from their own hard work. After all, he himself had come from such humble roots and grown up to be president.
At the same time, Lincoln saw that this right was not granted to everyone, and that the American dream could not be achieved by the portion of the population enslaved to others. The tour guide discussed Lincoln’s gnawing personal opposition to slavery and how it conflicted with his interpretation of the Constitution and his duties as president. While moving through the house, the visitor hears quotes and historical accounts (via audio and video) from primary sources that illustrate this conflict.
The tour guide also showed me a drawing of a shepherd, a black sheep, and a white wolf. In an 1864 speech, Lincoln explained:
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.
Such a story raises the question: If you had to choose a definition of liberty to adhere to, before knowing whether you will be cast as the sheep or the wolf, which definition would you choose?
It is not a question of mere historical interest, but one that continues to confront us. Many of us think of slavery as a thing of the past, or a thing we are not complicit in as long as we are not patronizing brothels filled with kidnapped minors. The reality is that there is an epidemic of people everywhere who are not permitted to benefit from their own hard work, and the issue of modern slavery is shared with visitors in an exhibit in the Visitor Education Center.
Can You Walk Away?
The exhibit about modern slavery is called Can You Walk Away? This name, intentionally or not, strikes me as a play on words with multiple meanings. For young or especially sensitive visitors, a warning on the door cautions about the graphic and disturbing content in the exhibit. Some visitors, such as families with young children, may wish to walk away before even entering the exhibit, because the facts and stories on the other side of the door are hard to process.
Once the visitor is inside the room, more meanings of Can You Walk Away? emerge. The victims of human trafficking literally cannot walk away from enslavement. Abuse, debt, lack of resources, and physical confinement are among the forces that make slavery difficult to escape.
Can You Walk Away? is also a question for visitors. Could I walk away from the exhibit? Although I had a lunch meeting that afternoon and wanted to allow time for Metro’s unpredictability on weekends, I found it hard to tear myself away from the small exhibition, where I devoured the three books of text and photos.
Finally, the exhibit title asks visitors whether we can walk away from the horrors of slavery that are happening in the world. The exhibit gives visitors something to walk away with: a postcard, which asks the president to make fighting human trafficking a priority, that visitors can sign and mail; web addresses for learning more about the problem and how to work against it; a hotline that victims can call.
Visitors can review information from the exhibit and learn how to help at exhibit sponsor Polaris Project’s website. While in the exhibit, I also learned of the Slavery Footprint website, where you can take a survey and find out how many slaves are working for you. The website told me I have 37 slaves; such disturbing information is accompanied by guidelines on how to reduce this slavery footprint.
Can You Walk Away? will not walk away from your mind, even after you have walked away from the museum. The museum would do well to put a giant box of fair-trade tissues in the exhibit.
The Holiday Season at President Lincoln’s Cottage
The cottage itself is not decorated for Christmas. Lincoln and his family used the house as a summer home, and no one lived there in the winters of his presidency. It would not have been decorated for Christmas during Lincoln’s time.
Furthermore, the present-day setup and interpretation of the house focus much more on words and ideas than on material culture. In each room, visitors hear about a conversation that took place or a quote from Lincoln as he grappled with the Civil War and emancipation. The tour guide spoke about architectural features of the house, but the rooms were not filled with the furniture and objects the Lincolns would have used.
The grounds are modestly decorated. There are lights on both the gazebo and a tree, and wreathes on the doors of the Visitor Education Center. Red berries that happen to be present right now add to the festive, wintry atmosphere outside. A sign inside the Visitor Education Center advertises the museum’s New Year’s Eve celebration, which pays homage to the Emancipation Proclamation, as it went into effect at the turn of the new year, 150 years ago.
In the museum store are a few small Christmas trees, decorated with ornaments for sale. Some of the ornaments, along with many other gift shop items, relate to the content of the tour. There are tree ornaments featuring President Lincoln’s Cottage, many books about Lincoln, and various other Lincoln merchandise – my favorite was the mug and saucer that look like Lincoln’s top hat. Other products support the cause of Can You Walk Away?: ornaments and other items that are fair trade and/or made by survivors of human trafficking who now earn a living wage for what they create. Purchasing anything in the gift shop helps the non-profit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which maintains the cottage.
Visiting this particular historic home for the holidays had me thinking less about elegant garlands and twinkling lights, and more about how to celebrate the holiday season conscientiously. There are things I am already doing this year with the greater good in mind (buying gifts that are mostly fair-trade and/or from small businesses… baking vegan cookies and cupcakes… giving presents to strangers in need in addition to family and friends… volunteering to sort clothing donations for the homeless). But there is always more I can do, now and throughout the year. I will be spending more time on the Slavery Footprint website, continually trying to reduce my footprint and do my part to reduce suffering and promote justice in the world.
Has a museum inspired you to make a socially conscious change in your life? Share in the comments section!
December’s blog theme is There’s No Place Like Historic Homes for the Holidays!