Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.

A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”

The Man Behind the Myth

My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.

Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading

Revolutionary Aquarians: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

While putting together our classic film series highlighting the significance of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, I happened to notice that two “game changers” in history have the same birthday: on February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Coincidence or not? I am not usually one to read into horoscopes, but according to the Zodiac, Aquarians (Lincoln and Darwin’s sign) are considered to be forward-thinking leaders and revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s and Darwin’s steadfast and unorthodox perspectives have changed the way we see our world, and both men have inspired Americans to utilize the Constitution as a living document.

The Lincoln Spotlight is on view now through February 17.

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was elected during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He fought to unify the country throughout the Civil War and outlawed the institution of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. A lesser known fact about Lincoln, as highlighted in the Skirball’s current “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibition—on view in conjunction with Creating the United States—is that he also advocated for the rights of Jewish Americans. Leading up to and during the Civil War, as anti-Semitism ran rampant, Lincoln steadfastly asserted the rights of Jewish soldiers and citizens. The same month that he declared the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), he also renounced Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 of 1862, which banned Jews from certain areas of the States and prohibited them from serving in the army alongside their fellow citizens. Furthermore, Lincoln made a point of appointing a number of Jewish generals to his Union forces. Again, an unpopular stance in the nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for other social and political revolutionaries to come.

Charles Darwin was a nineteenth-century British scientist best known for his theory of evolution. Continue reading

Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading

Schoolhouse Rock Turns the Big 4-0

This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.

The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.

Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!

Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading

Two Benjamins

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.

In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one. Continue reading

Democracy in Action

Inspired by the exhibition Creating the United States, I worked at the polls last week on Election Day. It’s taken me a week to recover from the tiring but important work.The first time I was eligible to vote in a presidential election was in 1972, when I cast an absentee ballot for George McGovern in Tennessee while I was a college student in Missouri. Despite studying political science, I knew little about presidential politics and was shocked that my candidate lost. I had even gone to see him at a campaign rally in suburban St. Louis where he appeared with Warren Beatty—who, I admit, was the much bigger attraction for me. [Just last week, Vanity Fair revisited that 1972 campaign through this fortieth anniversary “oral history.”]

I have voted in every election since, whether for a primary race, an off-year election, or a major presidential competition. Since 1977, I have voted here in Los Angeles, at a variety of polling places in my neighborhood—at a private residence, in the local floor covering store, at an elementary school, at a church, and at a skilled nursing facility. During all those elections, I gave little thought to the hapless poll workers who toiled to keep the lines short and the election running smoothly. I was frequently annoyed at how slow and cumbersome the process seemed…

…until this year, when spurred by our “Democracy Matters at the Skirball” initiative, I decided to volunteer to be a poll worker. Here was an opportunity for me to see democracy up close and from the other side of the table. Little did I know it would be one of the most challenging and exhausting jobs I have ever undertaken. I now have greater appreciation for the work of union activists who demand limited hours, mandated breaks, and safe working conditions!

The process began with a mandatory training session. The county workers crammed about eight hours of information into a scant two hours. My head was reeling when I left. Would I remember what goes in the white box or the green striped envelope? Would I figure out how to assemble the voting booths? What if I did something wrong that invalidated a vote? Luckily there are several safeguards built into the system to prevent my worst nightmare.

For poll workers, Election Day begins at 6:00 a.m., reporting for duty to assemble the voting booths, hang all of the directional signs, place all of the voting rosters on the table, and prepare the ballots. Continue reading

Making a Case (or Three) for Creating the United States

From the outset of planning for Creating the United States, the Museum team and our design partner, Fred Fisher and Partners, hoped to take a non-traditional approach to designing an exhibition of documents and objects usually displayed in small cases high off the ground. Due to the fragile nature of most of these items, we knew that light levels would have to be kept low. This low light combined with the need to lay the rare documents and objects back at an angle (positioning them upright would damage them) could potentially make it difficult for viewers to read or even see them clearly.

Our approach was to get the viewer as close as possible to the objects as we could and to create a color palette that would allow the eye to take in as much available light as possible by making the background “disappear.”

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Once the case structure was decided upon, the (somewhat daunting) task of laying out the locations of each object began. Each object was color coded by lender, type (original, copy, or facsimile); light level required; and hierarchy.

Layout schematic.

Layout schematic.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

 

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

The mounts are placed in the case.

More diagrams.

Placeholder objects help keep it organized.

Continue reading

Students “Re-Create” the United States

Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United States explores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.

Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors. Continue reading

Gary Cooper Rocked the Vote in Poland

Just a couple of days before Election Day, the Skirball will be presenting Ameryka. A meditation on democracy, this work-in-progress seemed to me a thought-provoking program to present in association with Creating the United States. Ameryka is written and directed by multidisciplinary artist and 2011 USA Hoi Fellow Nancy Keystone, working in collaboration with her Critical Mass Performance Group.

I recently had a chance to ask Nancy a few questions about the work… and I found out that an election poster in Poland was what first inspired it.

What sparked the idea for Ameryka?
I was in Poland in 2009, which was the twentieth anniversary of the “Solidarity” election. Solidarity was the free trade union in Poland, which sparked the modern democracy movement in Eastern Europe, the first semi-free elections in Poland, and the eventual fall of Communism.

It was during that trip in 2009 that I saw the famous Solidarity election poster. It features a picture of Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane, from the 1950s Western High Noon. He’s wearing a Solidarity badge above his sheriff star, and instead of a gun he’s holding an election ballot. At the bottom of the poster, it says, “It’s High Noon, 4 June, 1989.” I was really taken by this collision of cultures, by the use of this very American image to rally people to vote, by what this meant about the relationship between the United States and Poland. What I found was a vast universe of associations between our two countries going back to the American Revolution, and that’s what sparked the idea for Ameryka.

Your work addresses 200+ years of American history. How did you even begin to tackle this massive span of time and how have you chosen which eras to explore? Continue reading

Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading