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At the Smithsonian, Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life

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DeepModem Mom Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jan-16-09 05:59 PM
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At the Smithsonian, Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life
WP: The Age of Abe
The Smithsonian's First Major Lincoln Retrospective Takes an Honest Look at the Towering Man
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009; Page C01



When Abraham Lincoln's top hat was brought to the Smithsonian in 1867, the top brass issued a gag order about its arrival. Secretary Joseph Henry worried that the hat would become a distraction. The Smithsonian's purpose, after all, was scientific. Although it already had some important historical and political treasures in its collection, it was not primarily a warehouse for presidential icons.

And so, according to the National Museum of American History's Harry R. Rubenstein, curator of the new exhibition "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life," the hat went into a box and straight into storage at the Smithsonian Castle.

There is no reticence about showing it today. The ratty old hat, which has frayed around its edges and faded like an Old Master painting in a drafty church, is now the first and last thing you see when touring this small but poignant exhibition.

Brent Glass, director of the museum, says the show, mounted as part of the Smithsonian's institution-wide celebration of the Lincoln birth bicentennial, is the Smithsonian's first major retrospective devoted to the 16th president. It is small but thorough, with objects ranging from Lincoln's blue-collar days as a young man in Illinois to the funeral pall that covered his casket. The exhibition opens today, in time for the inauguration crowds, but it was planned before the nation decided to elect Barack Obama, whose Illinois pedigree, long and lanky form, and self-professed admiration for Lincoln make the exhibition accidentally relevant to the new national mood.

The Obamamania/Lincoln fetish echoes Lincoln's own self-fashioning. And the strength of "An Extraordinary Life" is its candor about these kinds of political myth....

***

What gets you into office can be a burden once in office. Rail-splitting, and even scientific invention, aren't necessarily qualifications for the social and political skill it takes to make the White House function as a power center. Next to the crude bricks of the Lincoln political myth, the exhibition displays the polished stone of the presidential facade: a silver service, gold watches, a beautiful purple dress with white satin piping for the first lady, all status symbols meant to establish the White House as an elegant cultural cynosure.

Lincoln's success as president, the rhetoric that seemed to come from the deepest, Christian conscience of the nation, and the Emancipation Proclamation have all erased direct memory of the contradictions and masks he had to wear....

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/20...
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