Ford's Theatre Museum

Review

of an Exhibition

by Jackie Wright

Published on February 16, 2010, Modified on February 19, 2010

  • Description:

    I journeyed into Washington, DC on a quiet Sunday morning in February following one of the largest snow storms the region has experienced in years to explore a space that has stood the test of time. Ford’s Theatre, located on 10th Street NW near the Gallery Place/Chinatown metro stop is famed as the location of President Abraham Lincoln’s April, 1865 assassination. Currently under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and the Ford’s Theatre Society, the theatre serves as both a historic site but also an active play house for the metro area. General admission to the museum is free, but one must have a timed entry ticket- I shared my 10am entrance time with several 50-person strong school groups and some smaller family groups and knew I would have 45 minutes to experience the museum and before a presentation in the theatre about Lincoln’s final days in Washington. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and was impressed by the small museum’s recently renovated high-caliber exhibition.

    The exhibition began following Lincoln’s train ride into Washington in March, 1861 for his inauguration. The first film in a series of five, with two screens installed into a scale model of the U.S. Capitol as it looked in 1861, described the vast challenges Lincoln faced as the new President of a nation that was becoming increasingly divided by slavery. I enjoyed the videography that zoomed in and around still photographs from the era, seemingly bringing the images to life while telling a compelling story. On a quiet day without 100 students and chaperones milling around, I would have been able to hear this and the other films with ease, but the background noise and crowded space limited my ability to stand or sit directly under a speaker. The second four minute film, set into a brick wall resembling Fort Sumter, expanded on the tough decisions Lincoln had to make early in his presidency to maintain the Union. I observed several students who seemed rather interested take seats on the carpet in front of the screen, but because of its location right on the main navigation route through the exhibition, their interest challenged the natural traffic flow for the rest of the visitors.

    The third film, entitled “We Cannot Escape History; Lincoln and Frederick Douglass,” was located past an elaborate Civil War timeline in its own theatre nook with several rows of benches for visitor comfort. It was a great way to introduce visitors to Lincoln’s feelings about the Emancipation Proclamation and his relationship with former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. The powerful quotes and visuals heightened visitors’ awareness of the brevity of the Civil War and how much the Union army owed to its black soldiers. While a bit longer in length, most visitors remained seated through its entirety, giving me the impression that it was a captivating story that attracted a set of visitors that were not avid text panel readers but were willing to be engaged via video.

    The fourth technology component was a set of screens showing a film about the hardships of 1862, a “Year of Disappointment” for Lincoln. One screen was located in the tabletop of a desk meant to represent Lincoln’s, while the second was mounted at the cornice of the wall opposite the desk to accommodate more visitors’ ability to view it simultaneously. This section of the exhibition has potential to be a great interactive teaching tool if the desk screen were converted to a touch screen that allowed visitors to explore letters Lincoln wrote at his desk or provided other free choice learning opportunities. The final film entitled “The Gettysburg Address,” located across the main thoroughfare from the 1862 desk station, was a wonderful way to bring the famous document a fresh look. News anchor Tom Brokaw introduced President Carter, Clinton, G.H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush who read through passages while photographs of Civil War soldiers scanned the screen; to me, the film was a testament to the continued relevancy of Lincoln’s many contributions to history.

    Ford’s Theatre Museum relies heavily on its five films to supplement the story of Lincoln’s life in Washington, DC. I appreciated the effort to localize the sound for each film to cut down on background noise but found it challenging when sharing the space with large school groups. I also valued the museum’s attention to accessibility and navigability; brochures with maps as well as a clear path to follow helped usher the large number of visitors effectively and each of the films were at appropriate clustering locations. As I continue to explore historic sites in the DC metropolitan region, I will look to Ford’s Theatre Museum as an exemplary small institution who took steps to incorporate technology into its visitor experience but can continue to grow as the forms and tools expand and become more accessible.

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