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Discussing National Tragedy: Honoring Abraham Lincoln at his Assassination Site

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Could you imagine coming to Ford’s Theatre and not learning much about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination?

Since 1865, people have struggled with how much to emphasize the Lincoln assassination as opposed to all the other moments of Lincoln’s life. As you can learn from the Images of America: Ford’s Theatre book, our online exhibition about the history of Ford’s Theatre, and previous posts on this blog, soon after the assassination, the U.S. Department of War purchased the building, gutted the interior, and used the space as an office building—until tragedy struck again.

Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone (son of the fated couple who sat with President and Mrs. Lincoln the night of the assassination) and collector Osborn Oldroyd sit at a desk discussing the sale of Oldroyd's memorabilia to the federal government.
Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone (yes, that Rathbone) and Osborn Oldroyd. Photo courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

Even when the building became a National Historic Site in the early 1930s, resistance to restoring the space to its 1865 appearance continued. At that time, the first floor, called the Lincoln Museum, displayed a museum collection drawn from two main sources: 1. Eccentric collector Osborn Oldroyd’s objects, images and documents related to Lincoln’s life, which he had sold to the federal government, and 2. Assassination artifacts that the Judge Advocate General’s Office had turned over to the National Park Service. Only a diorama and black lines along the floor indicated the site’s former appearance. Many believed that anything more would glorify John Wilkes Booth’s deadly act.

After extensive research and rebuilding, the site reopened to the public in 1968 as a working theatre. Even then, though, the event for which the theatre was most known remained little-emphasized. For the next two decades, a museum exhibition—relocated from the first floor to the basement—focused on Lincoln’s life and carried on the Lincoln Museum name. On the outside of a large circle, as the slides above show, visitors could see artifacts, paintings and photographs about Lincoln’s life and presidency.

The literal centerpiece of the museum was an 1860 life mask of Lincoln. A set of cushioned benches — surely a comfort to the throngs of visitors who flock to humid Washington during the summer — surrounded the tall case with Lincoln’s life mask. A resting visitor literally gazed upon the living Lincoln and not on the assassinated martyr.

This is not to say that the assassination was ignored or excluded. Park Ranger talks in the restored theatre, as well as informal interpretation in the Petersen House, also discussed that particular event.

While the exhibition in the museum itself devoted a small amount of space to John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators (as seen in a 1971 photo, above), the manhunt for Booth and the nation’s reaction to Lincoln’s death, it is perhaps not surprising that the emphasis remained squarely on Lincoln’s life. While a renewed interest in presidential assassinations following President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 murder helped secure restoration funds for the theatre, that event also made discussions of Lincoln’s death all the more sensitive. Indeed, in the months after the theatre reopened on January 21, 1968, the same fate befell both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Like most museum exhibitions, after 20 years the displays in the museum were showing their age. In 1988, the National Park Service undertook a restoration of the basement exhibition. When it reopened in 1990, not only did the museum include more information about the assassination, but a search of Washington Post articles finds a new name as well—it was known from that time forward as the Ford’s Theatre Museum rather than the Lincoln Museum.

A large group of people stand around an artifact case in the Ford's Theatre Museum 1998-version.
Photo of the museum in the 1990s. Ford's Theatre photo.
Inside the Ford’s Theatre Museum, two television screens display close-up images of Abraham Lincoln’s face. The screens are embedded in a display that is a large-scale photograph of the partially constructed U.S. Capitol dome taken during the Civil War. In front of the display are three white columns, designed to evoke the Capitol. Behind the display is a model of the partially constructed dome.
Photo of the Ford's Theatre Museum space (2009-current) by Maxwell MacKenzie.

After another 20 years, Ford’s Theatre Society and National Park Service created the current exhibition, which opened in 2009. Today’s exhibition focuses on Lincoln’s presidency within the context of the Civil War, but also gives significant space to the assassination—including life-size figures of the conspirators.

At Ford’s Theatre, and at other sites where tragic events took place, every generation faces an evolving tension about how much to discuss and commemorate that event. What do you think? What is the appropriate balance to strike at such sites?

To learn more about how other sites of tragedy are preserved and discussed—or, often, not—in the United States, see the book Shadowed Ground by Dr. Kenneth Foote, a presenter in our National Endowment for the Humanities Seat of War and Peace teacher workshop this past summer.

A 1969 National Park Service Historical Handbook on Ford’s Theatre, now digitized, contains a section with further information about the early Ford’s Theatre Museum.

David McKenzie is Associate Director for Interpretive Resources at Ford's Theatre.