Last night, Ford’s Theatre re-opened its museum after nearly two years of extensive renovation. The result is a transformed space that magnificently shows off the National Park Service and Ford’s Theater Society’s remarkable collection of artifacts of President Lincoln and the events surrounding his assassination on April 14, 1865.
The museum now tells the story of Lincoln from his arrival in Washington in 1861 through the Civil War and the sudden end of his life. Lauren Beyea, the museum’s publicist, explained that they “tried to create a greater sense of the context of what Lincoln’s life was like when he was in Washington. The city doesn’t have anything like that – we have monuments and things that are in tribute to him scattered around the District. But being Ford’s Theatre and storytellers ourselves, we thought it would be a great opportunity to really embrace the history that surrounds this place as well as Lincoln himself.”
So what can visitors expect now?
“Well, many people who visit assumed that Lincoln just showed up one night and that it was basically a bad decision to visit the theatre, that he’d never been here before,” Lauren explains. “But we actually have record that he was here on at least twelve different times. He would often stroll in off the street and see rehearsals in addition to attending performances.
“We hope that visitors to the museum will learn more about Lincoln the man; the struggles he was facing, his love of the arts, his appreciation for the theater and how that created an escape for him, so he could do what he did in his Presidency.”
Some of the artifacts include campaign paraphernalia, clothing from Lincoln on the night of his assassination, personal items from the conspirators and John Wilkes Booth’s derringer, used to kill the President (seen in the lead photo). NPS’s Gloria Swift, the curator of the museum, gave the scoop on one of the more fragile items, Lincoln’s greatcoat, on display in the lobby.
“The coat is a very fragile item, due to the fact that it was snipped apart over the years, the pieces kept as souvenirs. Mary [Lincoln] had given the coat to their favorite doorman, Alfonso Don. It was while it was in his possession that he would occasionally snip away little pieces and give them away as ‘rememberances of Lincoln.’ The coat stayed in his family; the museum received it as a gift from his granddaughter.
“When the coat is being ‘rested,’ a replica will be put in its place. Brooks Brothers – the original maker of the coat – made an exact replica for the museum as a gift, just as they had gifted the original coat to Lincoln.”
The exhibits also showcase a bit of Lincoln’s family as well. One section tells of Mary’s extensive refurbishment of the rundown White House, spending $6,700 over her $20,000 apportionment. Another section contains photos and stories of the Lincoln children, including one instance where young Thomas (nicknamed “Tad”) charged through his mother’s tea party in the White House, riding a chair tied to two goats.
The renovations don’t just include a renewed exhibit space. There is now elevator access to the museum and additional restroom facilities. The space is much more roomier and with the new context and theme of the exhibits, is a much more enhanced experience for tourists and locals alike.
Swift hopes people from across the country as well as locals come to see the new space. “We want visitors to walk away with a better appreciation of the trials and tribulations that Lincoln had in the White House, trying to save this country,” she explains passionately. “If it had not been for him and his persistence at that point in time, the country we know it today wouldn’t exist. And I think that is really important for when visitors come and they read the story, that they at least take away that understanding.”
The entire site, which includes the museum, theatre and the Petersen House across the street, is open from 9-5 daily, closed only on Christmas Day. Admission is free, but visitors are required to secure tickets ahead of time. These can be reserved through TicketMaster or visiting the theatre lobby, which opens a half-hour earlier than the main spaces.
Construction isn’t over for the site, however. Next year, plans will be finalized and construction begun on the new Center for Education and Leadership, housed at 514 10th St, NW. The building was acquired by the Ford’s Theatre Society back in October 2007. The Center is expected to help students of all ages explore and celebrate the life and legacy of Lincoln through innovative programs and events.
All-in-all, the new exhibit space is wonderful. The flow makes it easy to follow the story of Lincoln’s arrival and puts a lot of his administration into context in the events leading up to his death, including the conspirators themselves. While tourists will once again enjoy visiting the site, locals should take a fresh, new look at it after the season is over. It’s an hour or two worth your time.
All photos courtesy of myself; see the complete set at my Flickr site.