emancipation and interpretation

I had the opportunity today to visit President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Old Soldier’s Home in Washington, DC.  The guided tour prompted in me some larger public history thoughts.  First some background:  The cottage is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which led a multi-year effort to preserve and restore the cottage to the time of the Civil War, when Lincoln and his family “summered” there between 1862 and1865.  The cottage, originally built in the 1850s for the Riggs family, is an example of the American Gothic architectural style with more than 30 rooms and sits on the extensive grounds of the first federally sponsored home for retired and disabled veterans.

The Trust made the decision to have very few furnishings inside the cottage because the original pieces used by the Lincoln family were unavailable.  Reproductions filling the house, an alternative considered,  would likely confuse visitors, thinking they were seeing Lincoln’s chair or Lincoln’s bed.  Instead, the Trust followed the example of its historic house museum Drayton Hall near Charleston, SC, which is bare bones inside.  When I toured Drayton Hall several years ago, the bare rooms spoke through the stories the interpreter told of the successive generations of the family who had owned the house.  Plus the striking architectural features of the rooms held the spotlight.

Lincoln’s cottage does not have significant interior architectural details to delight the visitor’s eye.  There are some benches and chairs for visitors to sit on while listening to the interpreter.  There are a couple of huge plasma TV’s which flash visual images from Lincoln’s time and accompanying quotes read by actors to accentuate story lines from the interpreter.  Other rooms have speakers controlled with a remote for more voice overs.  These 21st-century additions to the rooms are a bit jarring to see and hear at first but the intention of deepening the guided tour is important.

A desk sits in the room that was Lincoln’s bedroom.  This desk carefully reproduces its original counterpart (can’t remember where in DC that desk is–White House?  Smithsonian?).  The Trust uses this desk as a focal point for its major theme for the tour:  emancipation.  Lincoln thought about and wrote drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage, on the original version of this desk.  The Trust argues in its tour (at least this general admission tour, not for schoolkids or for special events) that the cottage is significant not just because Lincoln stayed in this building for about one-quarter of his presidency.  The cottage is important to history because Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation there.

The Trust has filled the bare bones of the cottage with Lincoln’s ideas about slavery, the Union, and the Civil War, as opposed to period furnishings.  The tour makes the spaces inside the building secondary to the ideas generated there.

This uncommon approach to historic house interpretation brings me back to my thoughts about national park visitor centers.  Why are some stories told and others not?  What is the organization trying to accomplish, trying to convince its audience to believe?  The interpreter for my tour shared some information about Lincoln’s family at the cottage and some of the visitors who traveled the three miles out into the then-country to see the president.  But many of these stories still fed back into the larger emancipation theme.  Tad Lincoln became a favorite with the Bucktail soldiers guarding the cottage, and he often ate with them.  But Lincoln also saw these soldiers march and practice their combat skills, ready to defend him if the Confederates attacked.  Lincoln could also see from the second-story front windows the regular burials of Civil War dead at the first national cemetery just north of the cottage.  The tour interpreter played a retelling of Lincoln’s famous quote about how he would free all of the slaves, none of the slaves, or some of the slaves if that would save the Union.  The war, the Bucktail soldiers, the burials, all of these constant reminders contributed, the Trust argues, to Lincoln’s proclamation freeing the slaves in the rebellious states.

I liked the tightness of this argument.  I liked the idea of filling the bare bones house with ideas, not furnishings.  But, in the end, I didn’t have a sense of the house itself.  Its walls and floors and windows did not capture my imagination and sweep me into Lincoln’s time.  They stood as a container, and that container had no personality or meaning of its own.  The Trust in some ways made a daring and risky decision to use ideas instead of things to make its story.  Does the Trust really need the cottage to tell this story?  I am not sure, at least not as presented to me today.

For a national park, the thing itself is the story–whether the thing is the battlefield or the historic house or the stunning natural scene.  The interpretation is secondary, to allow for reflection and appreciation and education.  If a national park decided to make the park itself a container to ideas, would the park survive?

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