Abraham Lincoln At The National Constitution Center

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I am helping to put together an interactive exhibit at Monticello that will focus on Thomas Jefferson’s ideas.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experience thus far.  It’s given me a chance to think about how history is presented in a completely new context in comparison with the classroom.  The exhibit will give visitors a chance to explore the evolution, contradiction, and legacy of Jefferson’s ideas through a touchscreen.  The most difficult transition for me has been in maintaining focus on the needs of the average visitor as well as the practical issues of time and access.  We are now figuring out the content and in about a week we meet with one of the designers and computer programmers.  The work has given me a new set of questions to ask and a desire to move into an area where I can reach more people.

I’ve been reading more reviews about exhibits to get a clearer sense of what is out there.  There is a review in the latest issue of the Journal of American History by Randall M. Miller on a Lincoln exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania .  The exhibit is titled "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War" and will continue until early February when it moves to Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City, OK (opens Feb. 12, 2007).

The exhibit focuses on the issues of secession, slavery and emancipation which constituted the three principal constitutional crises of Lincoln’s administration.  Visitors enter the exhibit as they listen to a series of questions: "Were we truly committed to liberty and equality for all?" and "Are we truly committed to liberty and equality for all?"  The questions continue in different sections of the exhibit: "Were we one nation?"; "Are we one nation"; Were our civil liberties safe?" during the Civil War era; "Are our civil liberties safe?"  The questions correspond to wall panels that depicts contrasting images from the Civil War and today.  For example, the question about national unity includes a map of the 1861 presidential election results and a map with the same breakdown from 2004.  I often worry that you run the risk of watering down the past when you make these types of connections, but I now think that you are more likely to have visitors leave with a richer sense of the past if a connection with the present is established. 

Visitors interact through trays of flip-cards that allow you to make crucial decisions for Lincoln at critical junctures in his public career.  You can decide what should happen to radical Copperheads such as Clement Vallindingham for supposedly mobilizing anti-Union subversion.  You can try the idea out online and while it is more like a game you might be able to make some use of it in the classroom.  The exhibit also includes roughly 100 artifacts, including a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Pen of Liberty used in 1862 to sign the bill freeing slaves in Washington, D.C., and an inkwell used in the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

One of the issues that the team I am working with has to figure out is how to utilize the space designated for the exhibit.  It turns out that this is quite important since the arrangement of an exhibit can help create a certain effect: do you want people huddled together for a specific reason or is it necessary for individuals to have space to reflect alone?  Curators for the Lincoln exhibit chose to "force visitors to gather in knots of interest at the stations much like people at a political rally or a protest."  I don’t think I will have an opportunity to visit the museum before the exhibit leaves, but if you are in the area make sure you check it out.

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