Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Deringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth to kill President Lincoln is still on view, along with the 16th president’s boots and blood-stained suit. These artifacts remain the most potent objects in the museum at Ford’s Theatre, but they no longer hog the spotlight.

After a $3.5 million renovation, the basement venue reopens to the public Wednesday with exhibits concentrated on Lincoln’s presidency rather than his assassination. The overhaul of the 1980s museum follows the $22 million remodeling of Ford’s Theatre, which reopened in February to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

For anyone who wants to brush up on Lincoln 101, particularly what happened during his four-plus years in office, this is the place to do it.

From caricatures of the office-seekers who swarmed the White House to a video of our living ex-presidents reciting the Gettysburg Address, the museum brings familiar history to life with humor and imagination.

“What we want to communicate here is the personal, political and moral growth of this man,” says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who helped redesign the museum. “Hopefully, you’ll come away with a much greater understanding of Lincoln and how much the nation lost because of Booth.”

Mr. Smith sees the Ford’s Theatre museum as complementing another significant site in Washington frequented by Lincoln, the restored cottage at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home where the president and his family resided during the summer months.

In developing the exhibits, the historian collaborated with Split Rock Studios of Minneapolis as he did on displays at the libraries dedicated to the presidencies of Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The difficulty of the 6,868-square-foot subterranean space at the theater, Mr. Smith says, was working around “a couple dozen pillars” that are now mostly hidden in partitions.

The conceptual challenge, he says, was appealing to a broad spectrum of visitors, from “a fifth-grade student to a Lincoln buff.” His experience as executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill., which opened in 2005, led to a similar but more modest and text-heavy approach at Ford’s.

The new museum showcases 94 historical artifacts, including a few handwritten letters by Lincoln, his son Tad’s toy sword and a piece of White House china. They are enlivened by the stagecraft now routine at history museums, including figural sculptures, re-created building fragments and video projections.

Words and more words, the wall texts and videos’ talky narratives offer commentary on everything from Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus to his love of Shakespeare. However, some of the president’s most eloquent speeches are noticeably absent or indecipherable; the 1865 copy of the Emancipation Proclamation on view is written in German by a clerk from Iowa.

From the theater lobby, visitors descend a staircase (an elevator provides access for the disabled) to enter the exhibits through a threshold resembling an old railroad car. The re-creation is a reminder of how furtively the newly elected Lincoln entered Washington in 1861 — he was already under the threat of assassination. On display are the knife, artillery goggles and brass knuckles carried by his bodyguard.

Within the main space, the displays chronologically unfold from Lincoln’s first inaugural speech and his choice of Cabinet members — their biographies are cleverly presented in a wooden file cabinet — to life in the White House.

Informative videos produced by the History Channel are shown within stage sets meant to represent significant buildings from Lincoln’s Washington, including the unfinished Capitol dome.

At the heart of the museum, the displays focus on Lincoln’s struggles during the Civil War as he changed military strategy. “Lincoln invented the wartime presidency and he made it up as he went along,” says Mr. Smith, pointing to a display called the “Revolving Door of Union Generals.”

In a section called “Freedom Road,” famous quotations trace Lincoln’s increasingly progressive views on slavery, but the history behind these pronouncements isn’t explained. Too bad more space wasn’t allocated to this subject instead of the dull re-creation of Lincoln’s White House office and the paperwork crossing his desk.

The museum works best in personalizing the Lincoln presidency through the people around him. One of the most potent videos examines Honest Abe’s friendship with freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose visits to the White House were highly unusual during an era when blacks weren’t allowed on the grounds.

The exhibit moves on to explain how Lincoln and Booth crossed paths in 1863 when the president saw the actor perform at Ford’s Theatre in Charles Selby’s play, “The Marble Heart.”

Their final encounter is examined in the last galleries where the tragic events of April 14, 1865, are related through parallel timelines, one for Lincoln and one for Booth. Biographies of the 10 conspirators are fittingly displayed behind the re-created facade of the Surratt boarding house on H Street Northwest where they plotted the assassination.

Here, a large vitrine shows off many of the museum’s original artifacts, including the boot worn by Booth during the killing. His gun is dramatically isolated in its own case so that it appears to float in space.

As noted in the label text, “one shot was all that Booth had” since the pocketsize weapon could only fire a single bullet.

From the museum, visitors climb a staircase to hear more about the assassination in the very theater where Lincoln was shot. From there, they cross 10th Street to complete the tour at the Petersen house where Lincoln died.

Next door to the rowhouse, the 10-story building at 514 10th St. will become the last stop on the Ford’s Theatre tour when it is renovated into a new visitor and education center starting in 2010.

Three floors of new galleries will expand upon the exhibits in the museum, now the only venue in Washington dedicated to Lincoln’s entire presidency.

WHAT: Ford’s Theatre Museum

WHERE: 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: Free, ticket required

PHONE: 202/347-4833; 202/397-7328


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