How do we remember our Presidents? Lincoln at the Reagan Library.

It’s been fifteen years since we made the trip to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, Texas. At that time we were offered a heightened experience with audio headsets providing “you were there”  goosebumps.

Now this week, with so much focus on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I’ve been recalling personal school-aged impressions of that November 22, 1963 day as well as the audio-visual experience from that museum many years later.

So many libraries and museums, public and private, bring significant historical events and the sometimes larger-than-life stories of world and national figures right to our doorsteps.

What is our attitude?  I think we often move fluidly between deeply interested to mildly curious. We choose whether we want to think about social and historical contexts, perhaps learning something relevant from the past for today.  Sometimes we choose to observe more casually, with a little detachment–maybe wearing our “consumer” hats a bit too boldly.

I was thinking these thoughts after visiting a recent exhibit, “A. Lincoln: From Railsplitter to Rushmore,” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

This was a really interesting exhibit and our experience at the Library was extraordinary.

Although I long for private, behind-the-scenes and away from the crowds museum experiences, Los Angeles is synonymous with overcrowding.  But this time, with each of several rooms full to maximum capacity, the crowd was somber and respectful. I wasn’t aware of others in the typical fashion.

At times people moved through in silence, with a hushed reverence that still surprises me.  148 years after his assassination and people were moved to tears.

Abraham Lincoln

Perhaps the easy emotion was encouraged by the contribution of Oscar-winning sets and costumes from Spielberg’s “Lincoln” as well as the ambience of soft period music and low mood lighting, but people exhibited an emotional connection to the President’s iconic stovepipe hat, Mary’s Bible and intimate family photos.

Stovepipe Hat

The original movie sets provided a sense of reality to the President’s office, Mary‘s bedroom set, and elements depicting the Petersen boarding house vignette where Lincoln died, including the actual final pillow on-loan from the boarding house museum.

With rapt attention we were much more than mere consumers.

It was a large exhibit with a big crowd, but people moved through each display slowly and with care, taking time to read each small placard, and in the rare instance I heard any conversation at all, it was hushed and low.

I live in the land of short attention spans…I couldn’t help but notice this unifying moment when hundreds of people, of all ages, were paying respect to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.

If you’ve had a similar experience or would like to visit a library or museum you believe would hold strong emotional connection for you, I’d love to hear about it.

And someday I simply must get to Springfield.

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34 thoughts on “How do we remember our Presidents? Lincoln at the Reagan Library.

  1. The Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina is currently hosting an Annie Liebovitz exhibit. It contains her photographs of things that have inspired her as a photographer. The most moving bits of it for me were her photographs of Abraham Lincoln’s things and her picture of Meriwether Lewis’s compass. I stood in front of both of those sets and almost cried. I may even drive back up there before the show comes down in January, just to experience it again.

    Museums are powerful. I wish more people appreciated what they can do. I’m so glad to know someone else who does.

  2. There’s been a lot of focus on President Kennedy’s assassination in Oz too. Just today I saw a program about his trip to Ireland just before his death. There seems to be a program on TV every day. The more I find out about it and the more reminded I am of that tragedy, the more tragic and appalling it seems xx

  3. My knowledge of American history is sadly lacking, so I would certainly benefit from a visit to this museum! We’ve had lots of reports about Kennedy too this week. The most moving museum I have ever visited was the Hiroshima Peace Museum in Japan. It was also extremely quiet as we walked around, yet full of tourists, both Japanese and foreign. Very moving and actually quite upsetting, but I have since felt that all the politicians in the world should go there and be forced to think a little…

  4. Have always enjoy history but enjoy the history from American Revolution to the Civil War the most. Thanks for posting this. I am going to try to get out there to see it soon.

    • These museum exhibits really do help bring history to life! This particular exhibit has moved on, but both the Reagan and Nixon libraries are excellent sources for other wonderfully history-rich offerings. You might think about getting on the mailing lists. That’s how I end up hearing about so many of them. :-)

  5. That’s an amazing exhibit, I’d love to see it. I love history and this type of exhibit brings history alive. Thanks so much for sharing the pictures, it’s probably as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing it. I was very young when Kennedy was assassinated, but I distinctly remember being emotionally struck by the repeated images of Jackie climbing out the back of the car….that scene was horrific to me, to think of what she saw, what she felt, the sheer terror and horror that must have been forever etched into her soul. To this day, that footage grips my heart and gives me chills.

    • I was still in grade school, but old enough to fully understand what was happening on that awful day, and like so many children, being quite upset that my teacher was crying. I’ve been enjoying all the old news footage and you’re so right about the horrible drama of seeing Jackie on that back of that car. I really admired her until the day she died. She was such a figure of strength and composure throughout her life. It really has struck me this week how much in our world has changed in 50 years. Don’t we wish we had film footage of back in Lincoln’s day! I hope you have a good weekend, my friend. You REALLY deserve a little rest after this past week!

  6. I too have been thinking about my trip to the Dallas museum, which was interesting, eerie, and moving. Given the upcoming anniversary, I’ve enjoyed the interviews I’ve seen/heard with people who were very involved on that day. Meanwhile, this exhibit looks outstanding! Thanks for sharing.

    • I have been enjoying all the Kennedy-related interviews and news offerings, too, Frank. Although there isn’t really a lot we haven’t probably previously seen, it has intrigued me to think about how different the news outlets were back then. The lack of sophistication and “hype” has been a little refreshing. It’s also been good to see some old familiar faces like Walter Cronkite! I hope you have a good pre-Thanksgiving weekend, Frank. :-)

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Debra.
    I had similar feelings among the hushed visitors at the Lincoln Library in Springfield (and yes, you must get there some day). Jennifer and I went and we both walked through the exhibits of Lincoln’s childhood cabin, his law office, the room where he got advise from his staff and then signed the Emancipation Proclamation; it was all humbling, interesting, and wonderfully presented. I would enjoy seeing this exhibit and hope to someday visit the Reagan Library. It recently became a goal of mine, a bucket list of sorts, to visit all the presidential libraries.
    Tonight, thinking about JFK, I am remembering our visit to Arlington Cemetery and Kennedy’s grave. It was the 4th of July. Thousands of visitors. So quiet at the grave with the eternal flame. I was surprised at how emotional I suddenly became, sobbing. Just sobbing.

    • We’ve been talking about the same goal, Penny. We have wondered if we could somehow get to all the Presidential Libraries. It’s a good goal anyway! :-) I haven’t been to Arlington Cemetery, but I would love to, and I do think it would naturally be incredibly emotional. To have been there on the 4th of July would be even more dramatic! It’s been a goldmine for history this week, hasn’t it? I hope you have a good weekend, Penny–and no big storms, I hope even more!

  8. I wish I could visit this museum, American history is definitely quite interesting :D

    Cheers
    CCU

    P.S Unfortunately, I have lost around 1000 subscribers on my blog, and I have no idea how, so if you were subscribed, would you be able to resubscribe? Thank you!

    • Uru, I can’t believe you’ve had such a drop-off in your subscribers! I most certainly will resubscribe. I hope you’ve notified WP and asked them about it? I’ve had a few problems from time to time, and they’ve always been helpful. I hope this gets taken care of. What a frustration! ox

    • Thank you for the link, Mary. I am delighted to have a listen. I have really been enjoying so much attention focused on history this past week and I’m not quite ready to close it out yet! :-) I appreciate that you shared! ox

  9. I too have been watching some of the commemorative programmes about presidnet Kennedy and remembering when i heard of his death. Lincoln of course is purely a historical figure to me, but I’ve read enough about him to admire his achievements deeply. I’m not surprised that people found the sight of intimate personal items touching and emotional. They provide a tangible link with the past and with a man of greatness and his family.

    • I have wondered if there was any international attention paid to the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Perpetua. I have enjoyed many of the news specials that have been running for the last week or so. It’s fascinating to me to watch the old black and white footage and to contemplate how much the world has changed in 50 years! Lincoln is one of the Presidents every American school-aged child studies in depth, but I think Steven Spielberg’s movie from last year has given a new interest to many people. :-) Hope you’re continuing to do well with your recovery! ox

  10. I’ve been looking at the image of Lincoln on the penny for a life time, so will never forget or stop thinking of him, but have never been to such a fine museum exhibit like this that brings him more fully to life. Wonderful stuff! Thanks!

  11. This is very fascinating – I didn’t know about this particular museum. Great photos, too. It’s a somber exhibit, but it’s history. I am hoping to visit the new Bush Library, and mostly, the 9/11 Exhibit, which will also be a very heart-wrenching experience. History is fascinating, and sometimes stark and shocking. Hope you have a great weekend. Thanks for helping us all to “Breathe Lighter.” :)

    • I know that at some point I would really like to see The 9/11 Memorial, too. I think it would be very powerful! And you must get to the Bush Library! When they are relatively “close to home” they are such a wonderful way to absorb history. We have both the Nixon and the Reagan and there is always something interesting going on! I’d like to visit them all someday…but I may need to kick it up a notch. I’ve been to two. LOL! Have a good week, my friend, and I hope a lovely Thanksgiving.

    • I haven’t traveled very much, Meg, but I think it’s wonderful that museums have reciprocal relationships and share their exhibits. So many wonderful items have come through Los Angeles, and I try to see as many as possible. Now I have never seen the Rosetta Stone or the Mona Lisa–those would totally wow me!

  12. I, too, was in grammar school on that fateful day, Debra. So many shocks in such a small span of time. The shooting, the class’s reaction, teary-eyed teachers, distraught parents rushing to get their kids, people weeping at the Saturday prayer vigils in church, and sitting on the family sofa watching Ruby enter the history books. The adult world was in turmoil and nothing made sense.
    The Lincoln exhibit sounds like it would be something I’d really enjoy. Interesting to read your comments about how respectful and moved the other attendees were. I wonder if the same respect will be shown towards Kennedy 100 years from now?

    • Thank you so much for sharing your grade school memories of 1963, John. I’ve really enjoyed watching some of the television specials during this past week. I was telling my daughter earlier today that memories completely unrelated to the Kennedy assassination have been stirred simply by watching black and white news footage, hearing Walter Cronkite, and thinking about where I was as an eleven-year-old! I remembered watching the funeral in my grandmother’s living room and I’ve had the strongest sense of nostalgia thinking about her and remembering sitting with her and her big console television! We used to watch soap operas together. LOL!

  13. Excellent photos as always, Debra… I am very happy you enjoyed and absorbed your visit to the Ronald Reagan Library and the special Lincoln exhibit. I have been there I think four times – the last time, I took my son Jack and he left a bag of Jelly Belly’s on Ronnie’s resting place. You can always count on your eye plumbing leaking as you leave the video hall at the end…especially when Nancy breaks down and kisses his casket and the Chief of Staff is fighting back his tears.

    Indeed, the “hushness” and respectfulness usually abounds at special gatherings such as this.

    I believe you know that Lincoln – who initiated freedom for Black Americans from a legal perspective – was Republican. This isn’t meant to be a political thrust; merely fact. He was obviously not a supporter of slavery and as you know, slavery severely manifested itself in the South which is still predominantly Democrat. I find that interesting.

    When you saw Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, what came across your mind? When we saw it at the Smithsonian, I was amazed to see its fragility and wear over the decades.

    • The trip to the Reagan Library and the emphasis on President Lincoln was very moving, Koji. I knew you would appreciate it. And I love that your son left Jelly Belly’s on Reagan’s resting place. That’s so touching! Lincoln was a man of such incredible character, but in his own time he was certainly under-appreciated. He was a principled man who didn’t waver in his personal convictions, and I think that depth of character is what’s sorely missing in political life from both political parties today. I have lost regard and respect for all but a few men and women in office. I know there are exceptions to that, but they are rare, sad to say. I admire your political acumen, Koji. I’m definitely an activist involved in grassroots efforts in a variety of organizations and places I can add my voice, but I’m becoming less and less politically minded. Maybe it’s because politics these days equals inaction, and I like to get things done. LOL! But I am also a history buff, and I think there are so many things we can learn from looking to the past. Funny I didn’t even notice Lincoln’s hat as worn. I think I kept thinking,”This is HIS hat.” I just couldn’t get over that! :-) Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Koji. You have such a strong political sense, and you know what you’re talking about…unlike so many voices today that spout off but don’t say much! :-)

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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