By Michael Lynch
We seem to have arrived at a resolution to a brief controversy involving a souvenir item that went on sale at both Gettysburg National Military Park’s bookstore and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s gift shop. The item in question is a John Wilkes Booth bobblehead doll, clutching a tiny derringer in his plastic fist. (Click here to see it for yourself.) Both institutions removed the item from the shelves in the wake of an online uproar.
Various commentators, including battlefield visitors and historians, have pointed out that a head-bobbling mini-monument to Lincoln’s assassin is not exactly the most tasteful thing to be selling at the ALPLM or at the place where Lincoln delivered his most memorable speech. I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment. As some observers noted, you wouldn’t expect to see an Oswald gimmick on sale at the Sixth Floor Museum. That’s the difference the passage of a century makes, I suppose.
I think the inventories of museum and historic site gift shops matter more than most of us realize. Surveys indicate that people accord much more authority to museums than they do to books or other sources of knowledge. An inaccurate item sold in a gift shop thus takes on a legitimacy that it would never have in another setting. I’d like to see every museum and historic site put some sort of vetting process in place for the items they sell.
Having said that, I don’t think the Booth bobblehead trivializes Lincoln so much as it trivializes Booth. It turns him into a comical little target of laughter and derision. What we have here is not necessarily a celebration of the assassin or his deed, but the sort of commodification and trivialization of history that’s been going on in popular culture for quite some time. I’m not sure the sale of a Booth bobblehead crosses any discernible line that souvenir manufacturers haven’t already crossed. Let’s face it—those of us who work or have worked in public history can’t be accused of being too scrupulous about taste when it comes to stocking our gift shops.
Consider the schlock that we willingly peddle to tourists in an effort to offset operating costs: wooden rifles, felt kepis with pinned-on insignia, candy packaged in the form of musket cartridges. There are plush Lincoln beards that kids can strap onto their faces, pencil sharpeners shaped like busts of Lincoln, and Lincoln teddy bears. A few bucks will get you an ink pen filled with water containing tiny Confederate soldiers. Turn the point downward, and the Rebels charge in one direction; turn it upward, and they retrace their steps. Is the tawdry commercialization of the death of thousands of Civil War soldiers more acceptable than the tawdry commercialization of the death of only one man?
If we want to be brutally honest with ourselves, the answer is probably yes. The butcher’s bill of the Civil War was so astronomically high in terms of other American conflicts that it becomes almost meaningless. You can’t visualize hundreds of thousands of dead, but you can easily visualize one, especially when that individual was such a prominent and sympathetic figure as Abraham Lincoln.
If the Booth bobblehead fracas represents any sort of teachable moment, then hopefully it will prompt us to think about the trivialization and commodification of history as a whole, rather than the Lincoln assassination in particular. We can all agree that turning political murder into a joke is in poor taste; maybe we should consider whether the frivolous invocations of the past we see on store shelves and in the media are just as inappropriate.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.