“Team of Rivals”: The Museum Exhibit?

By now many of you have seen the short video featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin and her introduction to an upcoming Lincoln exhibit titled, “Team of Rivals.”  The exhibit will open in October at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois.  The goal of the exhibit looks interesting:

This exhibition takes you inside the highest levels of the United States government as Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet struggle with the momentous issue of war. Restricted to the information they possessed at the time, you will confront the perplexities and options they faced during the first weeks of Lincoln’s presidency — and decide for yourself if they made the right choices…

Following the approach so skillfully employed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her critically acclaimed book Team of Rivals, the exhibition uses the experiences of Lincoln’s closest advisors to illuminate Lincoln’s leadership. A combination of compelling artifacts, images, and audio/visual presentations introduces you to the powerful personalities who advised the President and brings to life those fateful days when a divided nation teetered on the brink… then toppled into the dark abyss of civil war… [emphasis in the original]

My question or concern has more to do with the explicit connection with Goodwin and the title of her book.  I should point out that I have very little understanding of how exhibitions are put together beyond my brief work with the staff at Monticello.

It’s not surprising to me that Goodwin would be involved in an exhibit that features the decisions made by Lincoln and his cabinet on the eve of war and given the popularity of her book it seems appropriate that she would serve as a “personal guide” through the exhibit.  That said, for some reason I have trouble with the title of the exhibit; it smacks of crass commericialism and leaves the visitor with the impression that the exhibit is the result of one individual.  More troubling is that the visitor is likely to believe that the exhibit is based on Goodwin’s interpretation and conclusions.  Of course, I have no way of answering such questions.  I must assume that the exhibit is the result of a collaboration between historians, curators, and archivists.  Did Goodwin have overarching control and influence that would justify such a title?  Again, I have no way of knowing.  I would be very interested to know the extent of Goodwin’s involvement in the development of this exhibit.

Is there any precedent for this?  Does anyone else have similar concerns or are my worries completely off base?  What do you think?

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16 thoughts on ““Team of Rivals”: The Museum Exhibit?

  1. Glenn Beck's Chalkboard

    Your concerns are valid, but (as far as I can see) there’s far too little to go by right now to make any assessment. I know nothing about that particular museum, but hopefully Goodwin and Team of Rivals is the hook to draw an audience and shape the broad outline of the exhibit, which will be supplemented by a range of other sources/voices/interpretations. Impossible to say right now how that will go.

    Goodwin, for better or worse, is a minor celebrity these days, and building an exhibit off of the name recognition for both her and her book is really kind of a no-brainer from the museum’s point of view. Yes, it smacks of commercialism, but there are far worse sources, and themes, around which to build a museum exhibit.

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  2. Matt Tyrrell

    I would agree both with your concerns, Mr. Levin, and Mr. Chalkboards assessment of those concerns. Creating popular interest in an historical subject is probably not easy, and outside of forced school field trips, passionate historians and “buffs,” museums are rarely on the average american’s to-do list. Goodwin’s book has been in the process of being made into an Abraham Lincoln feature film starring Liam Neeson as Lincoln and with Steven Spielberg directing. As Mr. Chalkboard said, banking on her name for this exhibit is the most obvious way to spark popular interest.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Matt,

      Just a quick question. How should the exhibit be evaluated? Should it be evaluated as a reflection of Goodwin’s thesis/narrative in addition to other factors? In other words, what does it mean to title the exhibit, “Team of Rivals” as opposed to something else?

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      1. Matt Tyrrell

        From only glancing through the Lincoln museum’s promotions for the exhibit, it indeed seems to be a reflection of the work Goodwin did in her book. One ad states “following the approach so skillfully employed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her critically acclaimed book Team of Rivals, the exhibition uses the experiences of Lincoln’s closest advisors to illuminate Lincoln’s leadership.” This is clearly tied directly to Goodwin’s book. However, it is not granting Goodwin ownership of “the approach,” so I would not be surprised to find a difference. That said, it does seem like its an exhibit based on the book and therefore, based on the research that Goodwin did; this is an interpretation of her book in the form of an exhibit.

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  3. Glenn Beck's Chalkboard

    Kevin’s question was directed to Matt, but I’ll kick in my answer as well. I feel certain that the exhibition will take its cues from the book, in interpretation and, quite possibly, in structure as well (e.g., the exhibition broken up into “chapters.” Visitors, many of whom will have either read Goodwin’s book or at least heard of it, will expect that, and I doubt that Goodwin herself would have agreed to the project if she didn’t have some real, substantive involvement in it.

    That said, a museum exhibition is not a long-form, written narrative. It’s a different animal, that has to tell a given story in a different way, leaning much more heavily on physical artifacts and imagery than on the written word. How, exactly, that plays out is heavily dependent on the materials that can be brought together to tell the story, either from that museum’s collection or on loan from other sources. I presume that the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum has that aspect covered. But you really are trying to tell the story in a different way, with much less time — thirty minutes to an hour, tops, and a lot of folks won’t read more than a few lines.

    Yeah, it’s a different animal. Just as a feature film cannot (usually) capture all the subtlety and complexity of the book on which it’s based, it’s hard to do that in a museum exhibit. But it will be interesting to see where they go with this.

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  4. Glenn Beck's Chalkboard

    Should also note: I’m probably the only person reading this blog who hasn’t read Team of Rivals. (My copy came a few days ago, but got pushed onto the “later” pile in favor of McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge and other works. But my sense from others is that Goodwin’s work, while highly readable and a great popular success, does not cover any new ground and doesn’t have much in-depth analysis to it. At the risk of being cynical, this sort of work might be perfectly situated to form the basis of an exhibition whose audience (after all) is not ACW specialists but the general public — solid (if not very imaginative) in content, engaging (if not very complex) in execution. Yeah, they could do worse.

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  5. Laura Lawfer

    Kevin,

    My first thought when I read your post was, “I wonder how large the staff is at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.” Perhaps Goodwin IS working personally on this exhibit to show to the public–especially if the staff is very small. This could have been a partnership that they developed in order to create the exhibit, and may not have been something the staff could do on its own.

    On the other hand, I agree that it “smacks of crass commercialism;” however, this raises another question for me–did Goodwin herself also pay for the exhibit? If so, I would think that’d be one major way for her to get her name (or her book’s name) on it. That doesn’t make it right, but in times like these, when museums have pretty much no funding whatsoever–speaking from experience here!–we’ll look at even ideas that haven’t been tried in order to bring something new to the public.

    If, of course, she isn’t writing the exhibit and isn’t paying for the exhibit (the latter being more important, in my opinion–otherwise, I want my name on the exhibits I’ve planned and written! :-)), then I think the museum has not made the best decision in allowing her book to basically become the exhibit. In short (or not-so-short, as it were), I’m not sure we know enough yet to judge.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Laura,

      Nice to hear from someone in the field and thanks for the follow-up questions. I completely agree that we can’t conclude much of anything until the exhibit opens. My concerns are really centered on the central role that Goodwin seems to be playing, not simply as an adviser, but almost as a personality behind the exhibit. I have to keep thinking about this.

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          1. Brooks D. Simpson

            As one walked around the museum, Bud popped up on screen after screen, offering vignettes on this person or that battle, all reflecting his approach to the war (not much about causes or emancipation, lots on the gallantry and courage of both generals and men). If you looked at the Civil War as a romantic crusade tinged with tragedy, you would like it.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              But the exhibit wasn’t named after one of Robertson’s books. Does that make a difference i terms of how the exhibit functions and how it ought to be evaluated? Thanks for the follow-up.

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              1. Brooks D. Simpson

                It sounds to me far more innocent that some have made it sound. Goodwin acts as a virtual tour guide. The museum already has a space devoted to Lincoln’s cabinet (the July 22, 1862 cabinet meeting). I see great promise for an interactive exhibit reviewing the opinions available to Lincoln and the advice offered by his cabinet in the spring of 1861, much like one might do something on the Cuban missile crisis.

                Frankly, I don’t understand the concern. It’s not as if Doris needs to sell books. She’s an effective link between scholars and a general public, and I see visual messages, etc., as far better ways to communicate information than dense blocks of text that most people pass by. Not all scholars can do well before the camera.

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  6. Marianne Davis

    I just took a quick look at the museum store’s website, and am greatly comforted. Of the 43 “Books for Adults” available on line, “Team of Rivals” was #20, behind “With Malice Toward None” and “A Lincoln Cookbook,” and well behind “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” If, in October, Goodwin’s book were to be prominently or especially featured, I would share your misgivings.

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