Jefferson, Wilson and the first ladies on display

September 30, 2011

In a city rich with presidential history, the national museums routinely find ways to bring fresh information about the first families.

This year is no exception.

The experts at the National Museum of American History have painstakingly conserved the handmade book of Thomas Jefferson’s religious views known as the Jefferson Bible.

In 1820, more than a decade retired from the White House, the third president clipped excerpts in Greek, Latin, French and English from the four Gospels of the New Testament. He eliminated any text that discussed miracles. He viewed the work as a private document, calling it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” The book was purchased by the Smithsonian in 1895 from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter.

Earlier this year, the museum’s preservationists repaired the book and restored its original binding. The document will go on display Nov. 11 in the museum’s Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. A special kiosk has been developed to let visitors see every page.


Hillary Clinton wore this violet beaded lace sheath gown with iridescent blue velvet silk mousseline overskirt to the 1993 inaugural balls. The dress was designed by Sarah Phillips and made by Barbara Matera Ltd. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History)

While Jefferson worked by candlelight, one of his successors was anxious that the country take advantage of the budding electricity movement and other technological milestones. “Wood­row Wilson, President Electric: Harnessing the Power of Innovation in the Progressive Era” will tell this story at the Woodrow Wilson House.

In the display will be a period telephone, installed with audio of Wilson’s speeches; a Victrola, playing records of the time; and a period radio in which visitors can deliver a speech just like the president.

The curators have borrowed a 1921 Milburn Electric car from the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, the same make and model the Wilsons used. It is said that Edith Wilson was the first woman to drive an electric car in Washington.

The exhibition opens Oct. 13.

The inaugural ball gowns of the first ladies is another aspect of White House life that has a devoted following. Unfortunately, the popular exhibition of first lady finery at the National Museum of American History will be closed Nov. 1-18 for renovation.

But a new gallery, “The First Ladies,” is refreshing the display with the historic context of how the roles of the first ladies, and of women in society, have changed over the years. The exhibition, which opens Nov. 19, will display more than two dozen gowns, including those of Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan and Jacqueline Kennedy, and take in-depth looks at Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson.

Other museum shows of note include:

●The National Postal Museum is launching a permanent show about the military and communication links with family on Nov. 10.

“Mail Call” will explore the importance of mail to troops and the the logistics of getting it to to soldiers. The new ways of today’s delivery will be coupled with letters, official correspondence and artifacts such as a camouflaged bag that drops letters from a helicopter.

The National Museum of Natural History is bringing back its ancient Egyptian mummies. Opening on Nov. 17, the display will contain some that have been exhibited before and some new old mummies. This exhibit will highlight the findings of the museum experts on health, disease and burial practices.

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