Last week, our nation witnessed a profoundly moving commemoration of the more than 700,000 Americans who have lost their lives to the COVID pandemic. The National Mall was filled with square after square of white flags, each one a banner of memory and honor for a fallen compatriot.
It reminded me of the National Cemetery that lies adjacent to President Lincoln’s Cottage, where Lincoln witnessed flagstone after flagstone raised to commemorate fallen soldiers. During his time here, there were 30 to 40 military funerals per day, and you can imagine what it would be like to wake day after day to the sound of a trumpet playing taps to bid farewell to another individual person. Such is the weight of this moment too.
Like Lincoln and his contemporaries, we are living through a national crisis that few of us expected to experience. COVID deaths in the U.S. have been disproportionately high among Hispanic, Black, and Indigenous communities and in rural areas—highlighting vast inequities inherent in our society—inequities that troubled Lincoln just as they trouble us. Some have referred to this institutionalized racism as a second pandemic.
Lincoln visited to the Cottage in part to find space and solace as he reflected on the crises he faced. It is a solemn and soulful time to join the amazing staff at the Cottage, as we encourage our visitors to search within themselves to find responses to the pressing challenges we face as a society. I look forward to working alongside our supporters to ensure the Cottage remains a catalyst for introspection and change.
Michael Atwood Mason (he/him)
CEO/ Executive Director
President Lincoln’s Cottage
Rebecca Kilborne: Michael, we are so happy you are here at President Lincoln’s Cottage. You’ve had an illustrious career in the museum field, most recently serving as the Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. What are you most proud of in your career?
Michael Atwood Mason: I am most proud of putting people at the center of my work in museums and heritage. From working with a team of community scholars on the Black Mosaic exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum in the 1990s to building a new program devoted to cultural sustainability at Smithsonian Folklife, my work has always tried to support communities—especially vulnerable communities–in their efforts to document, preserve, and share their stories.
RK: I know you have a PhD in Folklore (which is very cool, by the way). How has this background influenced the way you view Lincoln?
MAM: Lincoln is undeniably a great American president, but he is also a great American folk hero. So in the stories we tell about him, we are rehearsing the values and vision that we hold dear as Americans. We love Lincoln because he expresses our deepest beliefs and ideals.
RK: What quality do you most admire in Abraham Lincoln?
MAM: As a parent and a patriot, the two qualities that I admire most are his gritty integrity and his endless curiosity.
RK: How do you envision the Cottage changing and growing under your leadership?
MAM: After its amazing staff, what intrigues me most about the Cottage is its multiple facets. We are dedicated to preservation and place. We are dedicated to education and inspiration. And we are dedicated to social justice. My hope is that we will continue these interrelated efforts as we elevate the Cottage and make it a leading voice for Lincoln’s life and legacy, just as our nation stands at a new crossroads.
RK: If you weren’t a museum director, what would you be?
MAM: A writer? An eco-psychologist? A dry-stone mason? I am drawn to many different things.
RK: What do you do when you’re not museum directing?
MAM: I love to cook for friends and host dinner parties. I love to walk—especially in Rock Creek Park—and observe the creatures that live there: I am particularly intrigued by the birds and the humans. I love to read and watch movies. I love to visit with my extended family. And I love to hang out with my thirteen-year-old: They teach me so much.
RK: Lincoln loved poetry. Do you have a favorite poem or line of poetry?
MAM: “The fierce urgency of now” spoken of by Dr. King in a speech during the March on Washington. Or perhaps Tolstoy’s “what then must we do”?
RK: What are words you live your life by?
MAM: Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano wrote in The Book of Embraces, “We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are.” I so appreciate this dynamic approach to personal, professional, and organizational identity.
RK: What are you reading right now?
MAM: Lincoln’s Sanctuary by Matthew Pinsker. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmer. Plus, I am almost always reading something by psychological genius C.G. Jung.
Read more about Michael Atwood Mason’s appointment here.
We tip our hats to all of you present at our homecoming. It was our first in-person event in nearly two years, and it was a grand time. We whizzed through the scenic grounds in our Freedom 5K, rode ponies, savored mango flavored Rooby Scoops Ice Cream, and won giant jenga on the lawn. After a tough year, it was wonderful to see all of you and celebrate together.
Our beloved social studies series is back on four dates this autumn. Bring your young learners (ages 2-8) to our fun, inspiring, outdoor, socially distanced programs.
Click here to learn about and register for our October Social Studies, The Rabbit Listened.
Click here to learn about and register for our November Social Studies, Maybe.
On Thursday, October 28th at 6:30pm, join President Lincoln’s Cottage for the next installment of our virtual event series Scholar Sessions, created for (and free to) our wonderful members. In October, we’ll be hosting Baltimore School for The Art photography teacher and award winning photojournalist J.M. Giordano for a lively discussion on paranormal photography, Mary Lincoln and her relationship with William Mumler, the father of ghost photography.
Support our educational programs, preservation efforts and public events by making a contribution to President Lincoln’s Cottage. Donate online today.