What if you could walk through a door and be transported to another time?
We’re not talking about some portal of the future. Instead, we’re talking about taking a trip to the past, and you can do that right now, right here in Washington.
Step off the elevator at the new Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership and you’ll find yourself on a narrow, brick sidewalk in the morning of April 15, 1865. Church bells toll. Gas street lamps flicker. It has rained overnight. (You can tell that because puddles have formed in the carriage tracks and hoofprints made in the dirt.) Overhead telegraph wires crackle with news of the day, like an old-fashioned version of CNN or Twitter.
On this morning , the news of the day is very big — and very sad: President Abraham Lincoln has been assassinated.
At the end of the street you see a train car. Step inside. Rest your hand on the flag that covers the replica of the president’s coffin. Count the flag’s stars, as proof that you are no longer in the 21st century. You can almost feel the train moving as it carries Lincoln’s body through 180 cities and seven states before arriving in Springfield, Illinois. The president would be buried there on May 4.
From the train, move to the outside of a barn in Bowling Green, Virginia, as Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, is found by Union soldiers after a 12-day manhunt. Hear sparks spit and sizzle as the barn catches fire and listen for the shot that would kill Booth.
Your journey of almost 150 years back in time is about to end, but there’s still much to discover at this new, beautiful and interactive museum.
Have you ever played Jenga? If so, how tall was your biggest tower?
The centerpiece of the new museum is an enormous, Jengalike sculpture that starts in the lobby and goes up and up and up and up. It stands 34 feet high, about as tall as a three-story house.
And it’s made entirely of almost 7,000 books about Lincoln. Or is it?
Look carefully at the tower. It certainly seems to be made of books. The titles even include ones for kids: “Abraham Lincoln and His Family Paper Dolls”; “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek”; there’s even a Lincoln coloring book. Reach out and touch the tower gently. The books are smooth and even a little slippery. That’s because the books in the this tower are actually made from bent aluminum. (Aluminum won’t burn, and the “books” made of aluminum weigh less than real books.)
Can you imagine Abe Lincoln as a comic book superhero like Spider-Man? Would you wear shoes with Lincoln’s face on them? Have you ever seen Abraham Lincoln as a bobblehead doll? What about as a Smurf?
As silly as these things may sound, you can see them all (as well as Lincoln disguise kits, Lincoln logs and stuffed Lincoln dolls) on the museum’s third floor in a display case that shows how the 16th president has become part of popular culture.
Before you leave this level, stop to watch a short video called “The Unfinished Work.” People young and old, black and white, speak words as a kind of poetry while photographs from history — from the Civil War to modern times — flash and fade on the screens.
The words seem to talk about the world we live in today.
War at the best, is terrible.
We are not enemies, but friends.
We must not be enemies.
May our children and our
Enjoy a united country.
An open field and a fair chance,
Equal privileges in the race of life —
It is for this the struggle should
All the words in the four-minute program were spoken by Abraham Lincoln. Your trip through the time machine ends, and you’re back on the streets of Washington in 2012. (You can tell because there’s a Hard Rock Cafe across the street.) But you probably have a better understanding of why Lincoln was so important then — and why he is still so important now.