Ford's Theatre Opens Center To Study Lincoln In DC

Published February 8, 2012 10:27PM (EST)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Flowers once attached to President Abraham Lincoln's coffin and ribbons from mourners have joined videos and interactive displays to explore his life and legacy in a new museum and education center at the theater where Lincoln was assassinated.

The Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership opens to the public Sunday, the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln's birth. The new center built in a 10-story former office building is part of a $60 million project to create a four-part campus for visitors to learn about the 16th president in the nation's capital.

Visitors can begin with exhibits that explore Lincoln's presidency and see the theater where he was shot April 14, 1865. They can follow the story across the street to see where Lincoln died the next day.

More of Lincoln's story can be told in the new center.

Visitors will walk through a replica train car to see objects never before displayed from when the nation grieved for weeks after his death. Lincoln's funeral train traveled from Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City, then toward his home in Illinois. They can retrace the hunt for Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, to a theatrical model of the Virginia barn where he was found. Soldiers set the barn on fire to smoke him out and eventually shot Booth.

Director Paul Tetreault said Ford's Theatre is using the drama of Lincoln's story to teach history with a working theater and vivid exhibits.

"The more theatrical we can make the telling of the Lincoln story, I think the most accessible it is," he said. "It comes alive."

Lincoln's story doesn't end with the assassination, though, said presidential historian and Lincoln scholar Richard Norton Smith, who helped plan the new center.

The new exhibits shift from Lincoln's death to his "historical afterlife" and why he still matters, which is different from other museums, said Smith, who previously led the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

"The story goes on to this day," he said. "Few other historical figures warrant that kind of attention. Certainly Washington matters, Jefferson matters but they seem more remote. They seem less accessible."

"Part of it is that Lincoln is a universal figure in a way that very, very few others are."

For instance, Lincoln was a hero to both President George W. Bush and to President Barack Obama, he said.

Since Ford's Theatre reopened to the public in 1968, more than 31 million people have visited. Some come to see plays at the working theater, though not all focus on Lincoln.

About 750,000 people visit each year. With the National Park Service, which owns the theater, Ford's museum has displayed Booth's gun, as well as the blood-stained overcoat Lincoln was wearing when he was shot.

Now Washington can offer visitors more than just the story of Lincoln's death to see how he changed the country.

"Washington, D.C., is where Abraham Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln," he said.

A three-story sculptural tower of books at the entrance represents the thousands of titles written on Lincoln — and is meant to show how the last word on Lincoln has not yet been written.

Beyond artifacts that include pop culture items like Lincoln Logs toys, the new galleries include videos with a history of the Lincoln Memorial and its symbolism as a place for celebrations and protests, particularly for civil rights.

Another section explores the inspiration Lincoln provided future presidents. Theodore Roosevelt kept Lincoln's portrait behind his presidential desk and would look to it when confronting problems. He witnessed Lincoln's funeral procession as a boy. Dwight D. Eisenhower would sit in Lincoln's pew at a Washington church and painted a portrait of Lincoln for the White House cabinet room.

Later, Franklin D. Roosevelt would visit the Lincoln Memorial every year on Feb. 12.

"I think it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own," Roosevelt once said as New York governor in 1929.

The gallery presents Obama as having perhaps the closest identification with Lincoln as a fellow Illinois lawmaker who was elevated by a "single galvanizing speech" to reach the White House, citing Lincoln's Cooper Union address in 1860 and Obama's 2004 Democratic National Convention speech.

A rotating exhibit space currently explores the qualities of leadership identified with Lincoln, such as integrity, courage, empathy and innovation. Education studios and a distance-learning lab will help the museum reach students and teachers across the country, organizers said.

"If you think about what we have a dearth of in this country, it is real leaders," Tetreault said. "We want to talk about his qualities of leadership, and hopefully we can inspire a new generation of young people."


Ford's Theatre:


Brett Zongker can be reached at

By Salon Staff

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