Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" - An Extraordinary Exhibit

In recent posts, I've talked about my "Lincoln Weekend" in Washington D.C. The trip was a Christmas gift from my wife, who put aside her ambivalence about history for four days while I immersed myself in all things Abraham Lincoln. We visited the Lincoln Memorial, Capitol, The National Portrait Gallery and even some venues which had nothing to do with Lincoln at all.

On the first day of the visit, we visited the newly renovated and re-opened Smithsonian National Museum Of American History. As a quick aside, the restored original Star Spangled Banner exhibit is an absolute must see. The scientists and curator have done a marvelous job with it.

The main purpose for visiting the museum, though, was the exhibit "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" which opened just last month. This show marks the first time that the Smithsonian Institution has placed the entirety of its collection of Lincoln artifacts on display at the same time in the same exhibit.

The first Lincoln artifact the visitor encounters in this exhibit is none other than the top hat he wore to Ford's Theater the night he was assassinated, April 14, 1865. It only gets better from there. The original model Lincoln himself built to obtain his patent is on display here. A section of rail he split is shown along with a iron wedge he used to chop wood. A suit of clothes that Lincoln wore to his office is displayed next to one of the numerous dresses Mary Lincoln wore. Tad's pocket watch can be seen. The original document promoting U.S. Grant to Lt. General is shown, signed by Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Two original life masks of Lincoln are in this exhibit, as is a casting of his hands. All major eras of Lincoln are represented, including his childhood, legal career, presidency, and his assassination. A bloodstained collar from Laura Keene (the lead actress in "Our American Cousin", the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot) is shown, the blood coming from Lincoln as she cradled his head. An original playbill from the play is on display as well.

I think I was most stunned by the display of the actual hoods worn by the co-conspirators of John Wilkes Booth while they were imprisoned during their trial by the U.S. military tribunal. Each prisoner was held in solitary confinement, hooded and in irons. I had no idea that these hoods still existed. Unfortunately, it was never recorded which hood was used by which prisoner, so that information is lost to history. You can see the hoods below in the picture I took (there are eight on display).

The Smithsonian Institution has placed this exhibit on-line, which may be found here. It contains over thirty (30) separate pages, and has full descriptions of the items in this exhibit. It also has published a companion book which may be ordered through its website. I picked up one while I was in the museum and it's a bargain at only $12.95.

"Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" is an extraordinary exhibit, hands down the best I've ever seen regarding Mr. Lincoln. The items are displayed perfectly in low light, but bright enough to be easily seen. The display placards are informative. The exhibit space itself is large and visitor traffic flows easily. The items on display, of course, speak for themselves. You won't see them anywhere else. And the exhibit is presented as only the Smithsonian can do: there are no cheesy "statues" of Lincoln and his family; no high-tech features like holograms; no reproductions. Perfection. It runs until the year 2011, so there is no excuse for missing it. If you are a Lincoln enthusiast (and you must be since you're reading this blog), this is an absolute must.

My rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 log cabins


Jim said...

Can I just say that I've been reading about your trip and I'm absolutely green with jealousy!!! What an amazing experience for you. The picture of the conspirator's hoods stunned me as well ... it's fascinating and creepy, all at the same time. I used to live in Virginia for two years, and truly miss the history of the region. I'm really wanting to go to Springfield, IL this summer since I haven't been to the Lincoln museum before, it's been over ten years since I've visited.

twroten said...

Hi there,
I'd like to inform you and your New York area readers about an exhibition of Lincoln documents opening at The New-York Historical Society on Thursday, February 12th called Lincoln in His Own Words: An Intimate View of Our Greatest President. View the Press Release at Please contact me with any questions, thanks!
twroten (at) nyhistory (dot) org

Marleen said...

This looks amazing! I really liked reading your post! I think it's so cool! And the pictures! Lovely! Once I found an Amber necklace at one of the Antique shops. Apparently, it was from around 1865. It seems that everything in that time were unique and different. Great post! Loved it.

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