Ford’s Theater Museum – Leading Visitors Through a Historical Journey to a National Heartache – Lincoln’s Assassination – NYTimes.com
One of my favorite past projects allowed me to think long and hard about museums (I was thinking specifically about historic sites) and how they do — or do not — connect with their visitors. I nodded vigorously in agreement with Gaynor Kavanaugh’s (Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum) argument that artifacts should be presented as storytelling objects that evoke comparison with personal experience. He emphasizes that basis for interpretive elements should be based on understanding the people using the museum, not the objects. That’s basic customer service — what do people want and how best to deliver it? It’s shocking how many history-oriented organizations come at it the other way around — and create a disconnect.
I once stood on a busy sidewalk in downtown Philadelphia asking passersby a question with the word “history” in it. You should have seen how their faces glazed over. “History” does not enter their daily lives in a conscious way, although they can’t avoid it on the streets of this city. They hear the word history and are afraid that their ignorance is about to be revealed, that those questions they got wrong on their 5th grade history test are about to catch up with them. That’s why historic sites must warp through time and tell a story people understand in terms of their own daily experiences.
The newly revamped museum at Ford’s Theater was recently reviewed in the New York Times (see link) and seems a great example of the “right” way to present history.
The previous exhibit “presumed an understanding, but did not create it,” says the review, perfectly summarizing the main problem with so many old house museums. The new exhibits “lead the visitor through a historical journey” and create a context for the myriad objects on display related to the Lincoln assassination. The objects are no longer numbered artifacts, but are vessels filled with meaning that bring an old event to life. In fact, the “objects become creepier once you’ve seen the place where it all happened.” That’s because they have context and context gives meaning.
For the visitor to bustling modern Washington, D.C., the museum employs “time machine” methods to show Washington the way it was: “the malarial Potomac Flats, open sewer running along what became Constitution Avenue, the marble stump of the Washington Monument, abandoned for lack of funds.” With those pictures in their heads, visitors feel transported through time.
Another “time travel” experience the Ford museum creates sends visitors through a passageway where facing walls recount timelines of the two leading players — on one side Lincoln, the other Booth — and open into the theater itself at the point where the two stories intersect with tragic consequences.
Also significant is the museum’s partnership with the Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln’s body was carried after he was shot at the theater. It seems obvious for the visitor to be able to complete the “journey” through history by finishing at the Petersen House, but it’s amazing how often struggling historic sites overlook the opportunity to create mutually beneficial relationships with thematically linked sites. One look at the streetscape (below) clearly shows that the Petersen House is slowly being edged out of what is no longer a block of pristine historic buildings.
It’s remarkably easy to imagine that central building with the green shutters refaced as a new Benneton. Could the Petersen House attract enough visitors to survive alone? Perhaps. But the theater partnership is a wise marketing move. A tourist will find it easier to buy a single ticket that tells the whole story, start (such as it is) to finish, than to make a choice about whether to cross the street and buy yet another ticket for the finale.
The entire museum experience sounds creative and compelling. It sounds emotional. The interpretation at this historic theater sounds, dare I say it, theatrical. Granted, Lincoln’s assassination still resonates with this country as a significant tragedy and one could argue that it would be hard to make the story boring. Yet all over the country there are places with compelling stories that are told in a very boring, disconnected way. Ford Theater offers important lessons for successful approaches to connecting the past to the present. (Or perhaps Gaynor Kavanaugh would have it that we need to connect the present to the past…)