As we closed the museum last Sunday after a typically busy spring weekend, we prepared for three visitors who live in Washington but rarely have time to visit local attractions—President Obama and his daughters, Malia and Sasha. Like thousands of people who are flocking to the museum this spring, the president heard about the Abraham Lincoln exhibition and wanted to be sure he saw it before it closes on May 30. He also wanted his children to see the exhibit and learn more about one of America’s most admired and influential leaders. Their visit reminded me why families value the museum as a place for teaching and inspiration, where people make the connection between the past and present.
From the moment the president arrived, it was clear that he did not need a guided tour. His knowledge of Lincoln’s life and of the Civil War is extensive. In front of a wooden desk, he explained how Lincoln and other lawyers traveled to various courthouses in Illinois along the unpaved roads of the “Mud Circuit.” He was keenly aware of Lincoln’s political rise and the strategy he used to secure the Republican nomination for president in 1860. He noted the impressive collection of campaign artifacts in the exhibition. At a display that describes Lincoln’s first days in office, the president explained to his daughters the causes and consequences of the Civil War.
As the tour proceeded, the president used the exhibit to discuss issues and events beyond the battlefields—the impact of the draft of young men into the Union army, the significance of the telegraph and other technology in the war effort, and life in the White House. The section on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address offered an opportunity to discuss two famous examples of presidential leadership. A display case of the prison hoods of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot attracted attention as it does for every visitor who has seen the exhibition over the past two years. A final and poignant moment occurred with President Obama viewing Lincoln’s life mask cast two months before his death.
Before the presidential visit concluded, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough led us into the neighboring gallery devoted to The American Presidency for a brief look at some of the museum’s most treasured collections. The centerpiece of this exhibition is Thomas Jefferson’s writing table on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence. We examined the writing table, admired its design, and read the note that Jefferson attached to the desk, a note that comments on political superstitions and the “imaginary value” of historical relics. I fully expect that the Obama presidency, already full of dramatic events, will produce a rich collection that will reflect the history of our own times.
Brent D. Glass is Director of the National Museum of American History. The exhibition Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life is on view through May 30.