Sunday, June 21, 2015

Curating Lincoln: Another Look at "So Costly a Sacrifice"

reprinted by permission from The Urban Times  

Is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is coming to a close with more of a whimper than a bang?
A few years ago there was a flurry of all things Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, starting with two major new scholarly AND popular Lincoln biographies by Michael Burlingame and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and including a Spielberg film starring Daniel Day Lewis, all timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth and the 150th anniversary of his election and the outbreak of the War Between the States.  Are we burned out?
“Yes and no,” says Indiana State Museum Curator of American History and Fall Creek Place resident Dale Ogden.   “Re-enactments are as big as ever.  The books keep coming.  Civil War history has almost taken on a Lord-of-the-Rings life of its own.  I do think it will ebb a little here, though.”
Indiana played no small part in that opening whirlwind of historical attention, largely because the Lincoln Financial Corporation, headquartered now in Philadelphia but once based in Fort Wayne, decided to get out of the business of maintaining a Lincoln museum in northeastern Indiana and to get some exposure out of donating its substantial collection to more high-profile and high-traffic institutions.  The State of Indiana ended up participating in a rather spirited "bidding" war, and the collection ended up staying in the state that was Lincoln's Boyhood Home -- in an arrangement whereby the massive collection of Lincoln books and papers went to the Allen County Public Library, one of the premiere public genealogical and research libraries in the country; and the smaller collection of artifacts found a home at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
A handful of Lincoln items are on constant rotation through the State Museum's permanent history galleries, but a key to Indiana's success in maintaining the collection was the commitment to mount periodic special exhibitions based on the collection.  Right now, the fourth such exhibit is on display -- and while "So Costly a Sacrifice:  Lincoln and Loss" won't be the last Lincoln special exhibition to come to White River State Park, it is the most fitting coda to the national observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that I've seen. 
The responsibility for this exhibition, like two major shows and one two-dimensional exhibit that proceeded it, fell to Ogden.
The role of curator can vary depending on the size, priorities, and program of the museum.  Some curators -- particularly paleontologists and archeologists -- can spend most of their careers building and documenting a collection, and publishing the knowledge they create in professional journals.   Ogden has always been a curator with a special gift for pulling together a room full of artifacts, arranging them in a particular order, and then telling stories about them in a way that conveys his own sense of wonder -- "this particular object was actually used by this particular person to do this remarkable thing right here -- in spite of the challenges posed by that last thing we looked at -- and now here it is right in front of us!   Isn't that amazing?" 
Ogden started working in what has become his milieu 31 years ago, when the museum was in the Old City Hall Building on Alabama Street.   In a six-year span he was curator of three of the most artifact-intensive exhibitions the museum has still done to date -- a military history exhibit based on the institution's own collection, and then two popular culture exhibits, on broadcasting history and sports history, based on collections that he and his colleagues built from scratch in two-year campaigns. 
Ogden's early exhibits were as colorful and riotous and sometimes uneven as the overly-ambitious production schedules and culture of the museum itself under its director in those days, Lee Scott Theisen.  The series of Lincoln exhibitions -- and especially "So Costly a Sacrifice," are the work of a mature craftsman.
The challenge to the museum staff of mounting biennial Lincoln exhibits has been that the number of three-dimensional objects in this collection is relatively small.   The inaugural installation in 2010 essentially showcased it all -- and, when coupled with a traveling exhibit from the National Archives in the adjoining gallery, was almost overwhelming in the sense of connection it gave to modern viewers of the life and legacy of the great President.   “We had an obligation to prove ourselves, to show that it was not a mistake that the collection stayed here,” Ogden says. 
“There are some really iconic things in the collection,” Ogden shares, and cites the ambertypes of Lincoln’s sons Willy and Tad that are being displayed again for the first time in five years.  “The thought of Lincoln sitting on his bed, in the midst of the Civil War, mourning his son – if that image doesn’t move you, you shouldn’t be a curator.
“It still moves me every time I talk about it. But you have to use them judiciously or they can lose their power.”
Three years later, in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, Ogden zigged when the rest of the museum world was zagging.   While everyone else was borrowing and lending military artifacts and images to tell the story of the war, Ogden negotiated with institutions around the country to borrow objects that they weren't using, to supplement a smaller number of Indiana's own artifacts to tell the story of four generations of the Lincoln family.   It was an exhibit that engaged in some "log cabin" myth-busting -- pointing out with three-dimensional evidence that while Lincoln came from humble roots, he, his wife, and his surviving descendants were ambitious and successful far beyond the norm for nineteenth-century America.
"So Costly a Sacrifice" is built around a subtext of mortality in the way that Peter Sellers' last movies and Warren Zevon's last albums were.    The exhibit is not morbid, but it is about morbidity.   For this exhibit, Ogden supplemented the Lincoln collection objects with an abundance of materials from the museum's own collection -- and fully the first third of the gallery deals with ante-bellum American's familiarity with death.
A child's coffin, a death mask, and memorial "hair wreaths"
from a time when death was a frequent visitor.
The exhibit sets the stage with reminders that unexpected death was a frequent visitor in those days:  a child's coffin, a Victorian hair wreath woven from the locks of deceased relatives, and death masks that were created, in the years before photography, for portrait artists to use as models after the fact.    One compelling object is a portable, perforated “cooling table” for displaying the deceased.  “Most funerals were at home,” Ogden explains.  “People would put chunks of ice under these tables to keep the body from decomposing too quickly.”
“You died in bed, you were viewed in the parlor, you were buried in the churchyard.  It was kind of the ideal of the ‘good death,’ which the Civil War shattered.  But the Civil War also was the beginning of the modern funeral industry.  ”
A label makes the point that three in ten Americans born in the early 19th century died before adulthood, which led to a sobering math equation for my 14-year-old son to consider about his 35 classmates. 
The carnage of the Civil War is depicted with some of the earliest objects in the museum's collection -- battlefield souvenirs of whole trunks of trees riddled with shrapnel, and shells retrieved by soldiers who were able to describe the deaths of companions that they caused.
Still, Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated.   Between the circumstances of his death just days after Lee's surrender, and the new technology of the telegraph allowing the nation to experience the news simultaneously, it was an unprecedented shock to the body politic.   One of Ogden's favorite components of the exhibit is a display of published versions of Easter Sunday sermons delivered two days after the assassination, from all over the country -- all of them drawing liberally on the parallels between Lincoln's death and that of Christ.
“From an intellectual standpoint, this is the most fun I’ve had in all the years I’ve been here,” Ogden confides.  “Part of it was an epiphany on my part – things that I knew, but that came together for me in doing this show.  I knew Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, and so the next Sunday was Easter.  But the fact that by the afternoon of the day he died, people in San Francisco knew it – it amplified the tragedy, made it more universal.  What a huge shift in the human condition.”
And by the next morning, Americans were pouring into churches for Easter services to hear the President eulogized in Messianic terms.
Nearby, one print shows George Washington welcoming Lincoln into heaven.  Another is a death-bed scene in which Washington himself, not God, is the face in the clouds, surrounded by angels, who is looking down on the martyred 16th President.
My family and I toured this exhibit two days after the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death, and two weeks after a visit to Washington, DC, which included a trip to the Lincoln Memorial.   Inscribed on the north wall of that monument is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, also delivered 150 years ago this spring.  It's the one containing the words, "with charity for all, with malice toward none."   But it also contains the haunting admonition that, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
The six-year national commemoration of Lincoln and the Civil War is drawing to a close, but Lincoln would no doubt agree that the work of reconciliation is on-going.  His modern-day Indiana curator is no doubt willing to engage you in a conversation on the subject.   "So Costly a Sacrifice" continues at the Indiana State Museum through July 5.   It is worth another trip. 

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