Group Hopes to Bring Lincoln Collection to Washington

A Limoges plate from a state dinner service bought during Abraham Lincoln's first term is part of the collection the Lincoln Museum plans to donate. A group of four Washington institutions is among those interested.
A Limoges plate from a state dinner service bought during Abraham Lincoln's first term is part of the collection the Lincoln Museum plans to donate. A group of four Washington institutions is among those interested. (The Lincoln Museum)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Four major Washington institutions are jointly pursuing an extensive collection of materials related to Abraham Lincoln and his times with hopes of bringing it to the capital.

The Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History, Ford's Theatre and President Lincoln's Cottage have formed a partnership to obtain the collection of the privately owned Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind. The museum is closing next week after 77 years of operation.

The Fort Wayne museum was suffering from a lack of visibility and attendance, said Annette Moser, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Financial Group, the company that runs the foundation that owns the museum.

"The Lincoln Financial board decided they really wanted to make the collection more visible to a greater number of people. With the bicentennial of [Lincoln's birth] next year, it would be a great way of celebrating by gifting the collection," Moser said.

The foundation decided to donate the artifacts to public-spirited organizations and has received proposals from about 40 parties. The decision will be made by January.

Washington "is a natural place" for the museum's collection, said John Sellers, a Lincoln specialist at the Library of Congress. "It is where Lincoln became famous and made his mark. It is a natural place because the assassination happened here. It is a natural place because of the wealth of material related to Lincoln and the assassination."

"There really isn't any group that can match the visitorship and financial stability of the Washington group," Sellers said.

The foundation board plans to narrow the proposals in the fall, invite the finalists to meet with the curators in Fort Wayne, and then make site visits to the competing groups. Moser declined to talk about the applicants. "They ranged from the small, not-for-profit institutions who are interested in one or two items to the nationally known institutions," she said.

The museum's collection includes a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and a signed copy of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. The museum has a mock office, with an original desk, reading glasses and inkwell. The furniture includes a Gardner Gallery chair, seen in some of the familiar photographs of the president. The museum also owns Lincoln's leather portfolio wallet, a bronze life mask, campaign medals, his shawl and a lock of his hair.

The artifacts include 350 documents signed by Lincoln, as well as thousands of 19th-century prints and photographs, and 18,000 rare books and pamphlets. The collection's value has been estimated at $20 million.

"The collection is a wonderful resource that has gathered information and files on Abraham Lincoln that will be useful for researchers in generations to come," said Harry R. Rubenstein, the chairman of the division of politics and reform at the American History museum.

For example, "They have copies of every single sermon given in churches the Sunday after Lincoln's assassination," said Paul R. Tetreault, Ford's Theatre's producing director.


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