Lincoln’s Life in Sepia and Silk

History Exhibit Stars the Details

Posted January 14, 2009 at 5:12pm

After more than 140 years of gathering all things Lincoln, the National Museum of American History is finally ready to share its collection with the public in celebration of the Great Emancipator’s 200th birthday.

The exhibit, titled “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” features more than 60 items and maps the 16th president’s life from his time in Illinois to his ultimate fate at Ford’s Theatre.

“Bit by bit the collection began to fill in Lincoln’s life,” curator Harry Rubenstein said. “I think when you see all of these pieces you’ll see a different Lincoln” in a more intimate and personal look at him.

Displayed in a “U” shape, the exhibit starts and ends with the top hat Lincoln wore on the night of his assassination and left behind at the theater. It was the first piece of memorabilia the museum collected.

Around the time of the assassination, the War Department collected and preserved a few Lincoln artifacts, including the hat. It was sent to the museum in 1867 after the trial of those accused of conspiring to kill the president ended. Because there was so much anger and sadness over Lincoln’s passing, the hat was tucked away in the basement of the Smithsonian Castle. It stayed hidden in the basement for 26 years before it was finally put on display for the public to see.

Over time, more artifacts pertaining to Lincoln trickled into the museum. For instance, the War Department also donated the eight hoods worn in prison by those who were accused of conspiring to assassinate Lincoln. A piece of rail dating back to 1829 or 1830 that was split by Lincoln during his time in Illinois was also sent to the museum by the president’s cousin, John Hanks.

While the exhibit includes such iconic items as the top hat, it also features more obscure pieces that reveal lesser-known facts about the Great Emancipator. One such item is Lincoln’s patent model dating back to 1849. Before becoming president, Lincoln came up with a method for rescuing boats that ran aground on sandbars and the like. This idea earned Lincoln the distinction of being the only president to ever hold a patent.

Rubenstein ends the exhibit with a mask of Lincoln taken by a sculptor a few months before his assassination. Above the work of art is a quote by Indiana Rep. Robert Dale Owen (D), which Rubenstein says resonated more with him than most of the objects in the collection. It is written in large letters and reads: “Some men stand still, amazed, when the tempest darkens around them; others grow and rise to the height of the occasion; but few have ever grown and risen as did this man; his mind maturing and his views expanding under the stirring of his times.”

“When I read that quote I said, ‘You know, that is the part of Lincoln that applies to all of us,’” Rubenstein said.