Ford's Theatre Museum Reopens; New Displays Focus on Lincoln's Life

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

Ford's Theatre just opened the curtain on a compelling new drama.

Not on stage but in its renovated and reconfigured basement museum, which for the first time tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's life in Washington, and not just his death. What used to be a collection of scattered display cases through which one wandered, often aimlessly, now follows a path that tells a very clear story. That story begins with the president-elect's arrival in Washington by train in February 1861.

Visitors enter the museum through a facsimile of a period rail car. They'll see a cloak and cap similar to ones that may have been worn by a disguised Lincoln, whose security detail had warned him of a plot to kill him in Baltimore. And it ends with a hour-by-hour countdown of the fateful day in April, four years later, when an assassin's bullet -- fired from a pistol you'll be surprised to see is small enough to fit in a child's hand -- took the president's life in the theater just upstairs.

It's really several stories woven together. One tells the tale of a reformer's belief in the evil of slavery and of his fight to end it. Another tells of a nation torn apart and of the leader who would try to heal it. Still another tells of a politician beset by office seekers looking for jobs, a man who transformed the office of the presidency, through peerless oratory and the sheer force of will, from what the exhibition calls an "administrator-in-chief" to a "moral persuader." It's a change that has lasted to this day.

"Abraham Lincoln was awesome," one young visitor was overheard saying to his family on the way out. That's true, but it's not the only (or the deepest) message you come away with. What lessons you learn -- even which of the several stories you choose to follow -- depends to some degree on you. There are, as Ford's Theatre director Paul Tetreault says, three types of museum visitors: those looking for a quick overview; those who will take a more lingering but still scattershot approach; and those who want to soak up everything.

Tetreault hopes that visitors will look on the new museum like a restaurant. You don't taste everything on the menu in a single visit, he says, but come back again and again to sample dishes. We'll show you what to look for on the menu and how much time to allow.

A Quick Snack (15 to 20 Minutes)

"It's Ford's Theatre," Tetreault says. "We know how to tell a good story." It's therefore no surprise that the most dramatic narrative in the museum is the one whose climax took place there.

Beginning with the foreshadowing of that foiled Baltimore plot -- Lincoln's security detail offered him a knife, brass knuckles and artillery goggles as protection -- there's a sense of menace that runs throughout the exhibits. From the train car, skip ahead to a display telling of the night in November 1863, when Lincoln attended a performance of "The Marble Heart," starring a then-24-year-old John Wilkes Booth, who seems to have directed some of his most threatening lines toward the presidential box. "He looks as if he meant that for you," noted one of Lincoln's companions. "He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?" the president replied.

Don't miss the blowup of an eerie photograph of Lincoln's second inauguration, where a spectator in the background, some say, could be Booth. After that, you'll also want to spend time in the re-creation of Mary Surratt's H Street boarding house, where Booth and his co-conspirators met. There, you'll find many of what Tetreault calls the museum's "jewels," which include, in addition to the murder weapon, various knives and guns found on Booth when he was killed.

Finally, learn about Lincoln's last days, including a ominous dream. In it, as he confided to his family, he gazed upon his own corpse in the White House. Then there's the prescient parting words he spoke just before taking the carriage to Ford's. "Goodbye," he told guard William Crook, instead of his usual "Good night."

The Smorgasbord (45 Minutes to an Hour)

Lincoln's presidency was plagued with doubts and fears, only a fraction of which had to do with his own safety. Add to the assassination items a stop behind a re-creation of Lincoln's White House desk, where a short multimedia presentation drives home some of the "agonizing" burdens he faced while in office, including war, the emancipation of slaves and the death of his son. "If there is a worse place than Hell," he said, "then I am in it."

Also be sure a catch the video about Lincoln's friendship with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and another in which the four living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) take turns reading passages from the Gettysburg Address. Regardless of your party affiliation, it's moving stuff.

The Whole Enchilada (2 Hours)

In the old museum, you had to know what you were looking for to find it, Tetreault says. The new space leads visitors past chronological and thematic milestones in Lincoln's presidency. Those include markers highlighting Lincoln's famous speeches, what Washington looked like in the 1860s, White House family life (including a toy sword belonging to son Tad that looks more lethal than Booth's pistol) and an especially timely presentation on the "revolving door" of flawed Union generals that culminated in the selection of one who could actually win: Ulysses S. Grant.

There's also election paraphernalia, a life mask of Lincoln and a mock-up of the presidential box (near a sign discussing Lincoln's love of theater). You'll also see the actual door from that box -- notice the tiny peephole drilled into it, and learn the mystery behind it -- along with a piece of wood that Booth broke off a music stand to prop the door shut during his attack.

Lincoln's assassination is a great -- and tragic -- yarn, but it is by no means the only one spun at the Ford's Theatre Museum. The most stirring story is not about Booth, but about what Lincoln accomplished, despite the greatest sacrifice of all.

Ford's Theatre Museum 511 10th St. NW (Metro: Metro Center) Contact: 202-347-4833. Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Admission to the museum is free but requires a timed-entry ticket, which includes entry to the theater and the Petersen House, where Lincoln died. Same-day tickets are available at the theater box office, beginning at 8:30 a.m. (limit: six tickets per person). Advance tickets are available through Ticketmaster at 202-397-7328 or ($2.50 service charge applies).

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