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ALLM curator on the new Ford’s Theatre exhibit

As we’ve mentioned before, LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum has put together a special exhibit on technology in the Civil War at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C.  This exhibition will remain open through July 6, 2014.

We asked Steven Wilson, ALLM’s curator and assistant director, a few questions about the exhibit.

How did the idea of setting up a temporary exhibit at Ford’s Theatre come about, and why did you pick technology in the Civil War as a topic?

The Ford’s Theatre Society saw images of the exhibit on the museum web site. They thought it would make an ideal subject for a temporary exhibit.

How do you go about selecting artifacts and images for an exhibit like this?

We based our selection of images and artifacts on what we had available in the collection, the story we felt necessary to tell, and what we could borrow from other sites. The story changed somewhat as we modified our approach. The theme never changed—how technology changed the process of war.

What will visitors see?  Did you use any objects from other collections?

We expect visitors to see the transformation in America based on the advancement and refinement of machinery. Our purpose was not to provide them with an in-depth view of technology, but rather a headline news approach. From that they can conduct their own examination of the subject. In order to get a clear and at least relatively straightforward view, we felt it was necessary to have some key artifacts in the exhibit. We approached the National Firearms Museum, the Kentucky History Museum, the Tennessee State Museum, the Ohio River Museum, and the Southern Museum for Civil War and Locomotive History. The items we borrowed, such as a lever-action Henry rifle, a model of a steamboat, and the components of a telegraph, provided us with a look into various elements of the subject. Any exhibit is a cooperative adventure and will only succeed with generous partners.

In your opinion, what was the most significant technology to come into use during the Civil War? 

USS Monitor’s turret, photographed after the battle with the CSS Virginia. United States Naval History & Heritage Command, Photo #: NH 61923

In my opinion, ironclad warships changed the course of warfare forever. A good argument could be made for balloons, the telegraph, railroads or other innovations, but the battle between the Virginia and the Monitor changed the course of war at sea in a matter of hours. There were ironclads before the Civil War, but they were traditional ships covered with armor. Monitor and Virginia, despite their limitations, shattered the notion that wooden warships ruled the waves.

How decisive was the Union’s industrial edge in terms of the war’s outcome?

Gallantry,  loyalty, honor, and courage are words often, rightly or wrongly, associated with war. It’s difficult to generate patriotic fervor in the heat of smelted metal, standing downwind from a phalanx of belching smokestacks, or in a factory floor surrounded by rows of clanking machines. But it is equally war. The South had approximately 100,000 factory workers, while the North had 100,000 factories. It was like an industrial avalanche scouring chivalry from Southern lands. To quote Rhett Butler, the South has nothing but “cotton and arrogance.” A little harsh, perhaps, but one must remember that the Civil War was the first war of machines in a land of machines.

Is it accurate to call the Civil War a modern war?

The Civil War is certainly the first modern war, and its placement in history almost ensures it would have been. Machines had been cultivated to serve their masters, and many nations, embracing the potential of industry, committed themselves to the modern art of manufacturing. Look at what came as a result of impending war, or war itself. The Colt revolver, telegraph, ironclad, balloon, revolving turret, Spencer rifle, Henry rifle, Gatling gun, torpedoes, landmines, rifled cannons, submersibles, self-contained ammunition, and thousands of inventions that ranged from the ridiculous to the nonsensical.  There was an Industrial Revolution, and while no government fell directly from its emergence, it destroyed the status quo, reshaped society, and increased the capability of soldiers to kill one another.

What was Lincoln’s relationship with military technology as commander-in-chief?  How active was he in the implementation of new tools to wage the war?

Abraham Lincoln was born with a quiet, natural curiosity. He was drawn to learn how things worked, and his strong methodical mind led him, as he said, “to get to the nub of the problem.” He was an inventor, although he might be classified more as a tinkerer, and it was reported that during travels on the circuit Lincoln would stop and examine farm machinery so that he had an understanding of how it worked. When President Lincoln read of, or saw, or was presented with machines that might reduce death on the battlefield, give the Union an advantage, it simply fascinated him, and he expected his generals to share his enthusiasm. Mostly, generals did not. Lincoln felt the Spencer repeating rifle had possibilities, and said so. He pushed the acceptance of the Monitor when his naval advisors thought the despicable thing nothing more than unholy. He would have climbed into Professor Lowe’s balloon for a bird’s eye-view of the countryside, but the aghast Stanton forbade it. Here is why Lincoln’s approach is important: his goal was to win the war and unite the nation.  He was not deterred by the super-heated enthusiasm of inventors, or the outrage of Ordnance Department officers. He wanted in his hand a device to stop the killing. A lightning bolt would do, but Lincoln would settle for a new repeating rifle.

Any plans to have the exhibit travel elsewhere after it closes at Ford’s?

We’ll have the graphics available for a traveling exhibit late this year.

Finally, what’s your favorite artifact in the exhibit?

My favorite artifact in the exhibit is the model of the U.S.S. Monitor made by that ship’s crew and given to their captain, John Worden. Not only is it a remarkable historical artifact, it’s a token of the crew’s respect for their captain.

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Exhibit explores Lincoln on film

The current temporary exhibit at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum covers the history of Lincoln on film.  Abraham Lincoln and his era have long been popular subjects for filmmakers, and two major productions about Lincoln are slated for upcoming release.  

We asked ALLM Curator and Assistant Director Steven M. Wilson a few questions about the exhibit and the history of Lincoln in the cinema.  In addition to his work as a public historian, Wilson writes historical fiction; his novels include Voyage of the Gray Wolves, Armada, and President Lincoln’s Spy.

Why an exhibit about Lincoln on film?

Abraham Lincoln is an icon in popular culture and has been interpreted in films, stage, and television virtually since his death. Movies are a big part of American society. It seemed appropriate.

How do you go about doing the research for a project like this?

It helps to have a working knowledge of American movies. The stars, directors, composers, and writers who created these movies were actually employees of huge movie factories. There are countless on-line sites (such as Internet Movie Database) that provide an excellent starting point to begin an investigation of the Lincoln films.

 What are some items visitors can expect to see?

Abe Lincoln in Illinois held its southern premiere on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in 1940. Besides a shooting script signed by the principals, the exhibit features dozens of photographs of the premiere ceremonies and stills from the movie.

We also wanted to expand our investigation to include the wide variety of interpretations Lincoln underwent through the years. The first, of course, is President Abraham Lincoln in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. This inflammatory films that paints the newly formed Ku Klux Klan as the avenging instrument of justice. Lincoln’s death at the hands of the heroic John Wilkes Booth is laudable and necessary.  The exhibit also has excerpts from Lincoln commercials, television shows, comedy skits, and cartoons.

We seem to be seeing a resurgence of interest in Lincoln on the silver screen, with projects like The Conspirator, Spielberg’s upcoming movie and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Why has Lincoln been such a popular subject when it comes to making movies?

Good drama is based on loss, personal triumph, a struggle of good versus evil, and validation. Lincoln’s personality is so well-defined, and so apparent (not necessarily accurately), that’s it’s possible to tell his story in whatever permutation for a large audience. Draw a picture of a top hat and beard and you have instant recognition of Lincoln.  Talk about the dual themes of tragedy and conflict on a monumental scale, and you have the Civil War. It is a field that has been plowed many times, but it never fails to yield a compelling story.

On balance, how accurately do you think Hollywood has treated Lincoln and his era?  Have Lincoln movies contributed anything positive to public understanding of the man or of history in general?

Like any mythical, iconic, or historical figure Lincoln has had to endure his share of Hollywood poetic license. The artist as director or scriptwriter has a vision, and is not averse to trampling history to get at it. John Ford, director of Young Mr. Lincoln, is a  celluloid Frederick Remington—painting the American historical landscape with an unapologetic varnish of pure Americana. His Lincoln is poetic, humble, brave, troubled, but inherently American through and through. Watch any of these films for their entertainment value only.

Do you have any personal favorites when it comes to onscreen portrayals of Lincoln?

It’s a toss-up between Raymond Massey, Sam Waterston, and Henry Fonda. They all bring qualities of interpretation to Lincoln that enhance the viewer’s experience.  I guess my sentimental favorite is Henry Fonda, mostly because I’m an unabashed fan of John Ford.

Finally, here’s an irreverent question.  What’s the most bizarre or inaccurate Lincoln-related movie you encountered while working on this exhibit?

The Lincoln Conspiracy by Sun International is probably the most ridiculous entry in the Lincoln cinematic field. Falling back on the Otto Eisenschiml theory of Stanton’s role in the assassination of Lincoln, the only thing this turkey lacked was ancient aliens, Nostradamus, and gravy.

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Booth on the shelf

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.

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Illinois Lincoln sites threatened with severe cuts

Illinois historic sites associated with the state’s most famous resident, some of which have already suffered drastic budget reductions,  are currently threatened with the possibility of further cuts:

State preservation officials warn that expected deep reductions, coming after decreases of 15 percent and 16 percent in the past two years, threaten the closing of some locations and reducing of staff and hours at others.

David Blanchette, the spokesman for the state Historic Preservation Agency, said there were no guarantees that even the most prominent Lincoln attractions would be spared, including the acclaimed Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. “Like every state agency, we’re staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, and wondering what will happen when the trigger is pulled,” he said.

You can read more of this story by clicking here.

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Collections at risk

By Michael Lynch

One of the most troubling news trends lately—to me, anyway—is the flurry of stories on thefts from museums and archives.  The most notable of these is the case of Barry Landau, accused of stealing over 2,500 items from various institutions, but several smaller-scale incidents have also made headlines lately, such as the theft of weapons from a Revolutionary War museum.

Part of the problem is that historic manuscripts fetch astronomically high prices these days.  In the mid- to late 1800’s the antiquarian and historian Lyman C. Draper was able to amass a huge collection of documentary material from the early frontier simply by asking around.  Today many of the documents he solicited through the mail would bring thousands of dollars.  In the past couple of years, documents signed or handwritten by Lincoln have sold for as much as $3.8 million.

As historic materials have become more valuable, the financial resources available to the museums and archives charged with securing them are diminishing.  Public history institutions are struggling along with the rest of us, and slashed budgets result in a dearth of tools to keep tabs on collections and fewer personnel to keep a watchful eye on visitors and researchers.  Institutions are thus faced with the burden of guarding more and more valuable material with fewer and fewer resources.

But even if the dollar values of historic materials plummeted and the budgets for institutions allowed administrators to create virtually impregnable security measures, some risk to the collections would remain, simply because the items which make up those collections are so compelling in and of themselves.   The compulsion to steal documents and artifacts is perverse, but there is a sense in which it’s a warped manifestation of the same impulses which drive historians, curators, archivists, and legitimate collectors: We recognize that the past has a kind of transcendence which we can access vicariously through the raw materials of history.

That’s the reason for building museums and archives in the first place.  These objects have an intrinsic value.  My first foray into public history was the time I spent as an intern at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  One day the curator told me to dismantle our ironclad exhibit and put the artifacts in storage.  It was a surreal experience, cradling in my hands the signal lantern from the Monitor and the speaking trumpet that the vessel’s commanding officer used during the battle with the Virginia.  Once I had them safely locked away, I got out my cell phone to call my mom and tell her, “I just handled the Monitor‘s signal lantern!”

Museums and archives have dual purposes which exist in tension with each other.  They exist both to safeguard important materials and also to allow the public to access them.  Every folder carried into a reading room and every artifact placed in a gallery is an act of calculated and managed risk.  The risk must be taken if the institution is to fulfill its public obligations, but it must also be minimized to the greatest degree possible.  Given the rising prices of original material, the declining budgets of tightly strapped museums and archives, and the remarkable audacity of the thieves who target them, this is a problem that won’t be going away soon.

—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.

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