Behind the Scenes with “Silent Witnesses”

As we say goodbye to the landmark exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, we are also looking back on the monumental amount of work that went into making an exhibition of this scale. Silent Witnesses has been, by far, the largest undertaking to date by the small Exhibitions team at Ford’s Theatre Society—as befits this important anniversary in the history of Ford’s Theatre and the United States.

Items sit in a large, flat museum case. Pieces are Abraham Lincoln's black-wool Great Coat, his signature Top Hat, contents of his pockets including a Confederate bill, spectacles and a pocket watch,
Display case featuring items from the "Silent Witnesses" exhibition at the Center for Education and Leadership. The exhibition is presented in partnership with the National Museum of American History. Lenders include the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; Chicago History Museum; Library of Congress; National Museum of American History; National Park Service; Pike County Historical Society; Shapell Manuscript Foundation; Studebaker National Museum; and historian James Swanson. Photo by Gary Erskine.

 Now that all of the artifacts are safely back with their home institutions, and now that we have securely stowed the cases and exhibitry from the show in our warehouse, we want to share one last glimpse into this special project. This time, we’ll take you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the work that goes into making an exhibit like this.

Eight different institutions generously lent artifacts to Silent Witnesses. Every artifact was priceless. Many were the jewels of the lending institutions’ collections. In many cases the artifact is seldom displayed because of its fragility. Mary Lincoln’s cloak, for example, had not been displayed for at least 50 years. Each lender carefully considered the unique occasion that the 150th anniversary represented and the importance of reuniting these extraordinary artifacts for the first time. They also evaluated our ability to transport and house the artifacts appropriately while they were in our care at Ford’s Theatre.

We worked with each of our lenders to arrange transportation for their objects. Some of the artifacts were less challenging, although no less nerve-wracking. Because our partner, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has its own security department, for example, they were able to arrange to have their guards escort Lincoln’s top hat and Laura Keene’s bloody cuff. It helped that the hat and cuff didn’t have far to go—it’s no more than a 15-minute walk between the American History museum on the National Mall and Ford’s Theatre!

Other artifacts were a little trickier. The barouche carriage that the Lincolns and their guests rode in to the theatre needed to make its way from South Bend, Indiana, to Washington, D.C. Since it has been in the possession of the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, it has never traveled father than Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where it went for conservation work several years ago. We hired art shipping experts to create a custom crate that measured more than eight feet high and 15 feet long. The crate incorporated rigging that suspended the carriage once it was enclosed so that the bumps and vibrations of the road didn’t do any damage.

Ford
Ford's Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault and National Museum of American History Director John Gray stand by the carriage that Abraham Lincoln and Mary Lincoln took to Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination. The carriage was on display at Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in 2015 as part of “Silent Witnesses.” Photo by Richard Strauss.

We also worked hard to meet the needs of the artifacts once they were on site at Ford’s. Each artifact required specific temperatures, humidity and light levels, depending on the composition and condition of the materials that make up the artifact.

Luckily for us, some artifacts came with their own regulated conditions built in! The Lincoln Flag, for example, from Pike County Historical Society in Milford, Pennsylvania, has a gauge, which you can see in the photo here, measuring temperature and humidity. It is also permanently sealed inside a wooden case that can be filled with argon gas. Because argon is an inert, noble gas, it does not react with the materials around it like oxygen does and therefore keeps the delicate Lincoln flag from deteriorating as quickly as it otherwise would.

But sealing most objects inside a specially made case isn’t practical, so oxygen is a necessary evil. Silent Witnesses featured airtight cases for the most part, then the air inside the case was conditioned to the appropriate levels. We used silica gel to achieve a steady humidity level (this is the amount of water in the air). Silica gel regulates the humidity by drawing water molecules out of the air and trapping them. Maintaining a steady humidity level around 45-50% means artifacts are less prone to expand and contract as they absorb and release water, which dries out many materials, making them more brittle over time. You may not know that the silica gel we use in museums is no different than what’s inside the little packets you’ll find in your favorite snack!

Entry view of the red paneled walls and museum cases for the 2015 “Silent Witnesses” exhibition at the Center for Education and Leadership. Artifact shown is a violin and bow played in the orchestra at Ford's the night of the assassination.
Artifacts like this wooden violin and drumsticks from the musicians who played the performance of "Our American Cousin"  on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theatre rest behind temperature-controlled glass. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Temperature is another key factor that affects artifacts in museum galleries. There’s a rule of thumb in the museum world that if you’re comfortable, your artifacts probably aren’t. This is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true. At higher temperatures, atoms and molecules move more quickly, which means chemical reactions (including decay) occur more quickly. Usually, exhibitions attempt to strike a balance between the care of the artifacts and the comfort of visitors, around 65–70º F, but museum storage facilities are often kept much cooler.

Light is the last of the three primary agents of deterioration that we worked to stabilize before Silent Witnesses opened. Light is most damaging to textiles and paper, which become more brittle the longer they are exposed to light. Silent Witnesses, for example, generally held to around 3 footcandles (a measurement of light). The average office space, in contrast, might be about 30 footcandles. Your living room at home might be closer to 10.

In addition to providing a safe environment for artifacts, another important part of museum work is making sure an exhibition can live on after the physical show comes down. We worked with a publisher to create an exhibition book to complement Silent Witnesses, offering more information about Ford’s Theatre and the story of the artifacts we brought together for the 150th anniversary. This book will be available in the Ford’s Theatre gift store for years to come.

We’re also thrilled to showcase a digital version of Silent Witnesses on Google Cultural Institute. This will give people across the country and around the world an opportunity to interact with the artifacts in the exhibition for themselves.

So even if you weren’t able to visit us while Silent Witnesses was at the Center for Education and Leadership, we hope you take advantage of these two opportunities to explore the power and importance of these remarkable objects and learn about the incredible story they tell about one fateful night at Ford’s Theatre more than 150 years ago.

Heather Hoagland is the Museum Assistant for Ford’s Theatre Society where she supports the special exhibitions program in the Center for Education and Leadership.  She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University.

To learn more:

http://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2015/04/the-10-agents-of-deterioration.html

http://www.cci-icc.gc.ca/