Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
For this episode, we’re exploring one of our all-time top questions at the Cottage. Along the way we’ll stop by the White House records, historical cooties, measuring authenticity, and defining what a museum even is, anyway. Come along with us!
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!
CH: Let’s take that half hour now.
JC: For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Where’s all the furniture?”
CH: We get this question All. The. Time. It might actually be our most consistently asked question. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever given a tour when someone didn’t bring this up. Many visitors are surprised that the rooms at the Cottage aren’t completely furnished, or full of objects that belonged to Lincoln. So when we were identifying questions for Season 4 of Q&Abe, we thought it might be good to dive into this.
JC: The answer to this question intersects with work folks at the Cottage have been doing for a long time, but let’s get started. Where is the furniture, though?
CH: To our knowledge, there is one extant photo of the outside of the house in the 1860s, and none of the interior during Lincoln’s time. But, we do know that the Lincolns were moving things back and forth from the Cottage to the White House each season that they were here. We reached out to Dr. Matt Costello, the Senior Historian at the White House Historical Association, to see what their records on the subject were like.
Matt Costello: We were able to find a couple of references related to the moving of furniture. There’s one that many scholars have cited. It has its origins, in, in a number of different places, but it, it looks like, uh, the primary pinpoint of it is with the Treasury Accounting Department, which says that there were 19 loads of furniture that were brought back from the Soldier’s Home to the White House in fall 1863. Uh, but if you’re bringing furniture back to the White House, you then in theory, must be taking furniture out of the White House earlier that year. Uh, I was able to find a second reference in a Washington newspaper of workmen at the White House preparing to move items from the White House to the Soldiers Home and this was in June 1864. So again, if there’s a reference of things being moved out, well, then they must be brought back at some point, so we know that there were at least two documented moves in those two years. Uh, as far as what happened in 1862, um, I’m not quite sure, uh, but you know, if they did it for the other two seasons, it’s certainly possible they did it for that first season as well. When we’re trying to imagine what could have possibly been in these 19 loads of furniture or, or 19 wagon-loads, you know, what would the Lincolns have been bringing? Well, there were no inventories of the moves taken, but, you know, if the Lincolns were moving for a long period of time to another residence in Washington, you would think much of this would have to have been their personal effects. So you know, their personal possessions, their clothing, anything that they really would have needed on a daily basis or nearly daily basis, that they would have required at a, a new residence, a summer residence.
CH: The other thing that kinda makes me, me laugh sometimes is that there’s, there’s always this, like, “shock and awe” of saying they, at one season, had 19 wagon loads of furniture, but, you know, I’d be curious just to know like, how many wagons is equal to one UHaul truck today, and then, you know, like…
MC: Yeah. You know, I, again, it’s one of those things where you, you have at least the number and you have what sounds like a unit of measure, but again, you’re just sort of like, well, how big were these wagons? When you say like, loads of furniture, was it just furniture or, you know, was it, was it, or were you just counting, you know, the 19 things that you saw and it was just sort of like assorted household items, furniture, toys, you know, what have you. I mean, and that was the other thing, you know, the Lincolns also had Tad and so, you know, Tad would have, I would assume, would have required a number of different things, you know, bringing a child with you, to the Soldiers Home. Anybody who has kids out there, I have two little ones, I think about all the stuff we need anytime we, we go anywhere and, you know, apply that principle again in the 19th century, you know, what would Tad have needed at the Soldier’s Home long-term? What would Tad have wanted to bring with him?
JC: This got us wondering – what did the Lincolns have at the White House, then? Maybe we could make some guesses from there about what they might have wanted to bring with them for their summer at the Cottage. But, it turns out even this information is very limited. Melissa Naulin, the Associate Curator at the White House itself, wasn’t able to speak with us for the episode but shared invaluable resources with us.
CH: There are four images of the Lincoln White House interiors: two photographs, and two drawings. All are of public-facing spaces, like Lincoln’s office or the East Room. There’s also a couple images from later years that feature décor from the Lincoln administration. These are, again, very public rooms like the State Dining Room, rather than the Lincolns’ private spaces. This means it’s much more likely these furnishings stayed in place at the White House during the summer, as, for example, Lincoln continued to commute to work there and would have needed his office intact.
JC: Melissa told us there’s also an inventory of the furnishings taken on May 26, 1865, just a few days after Mrs. Lincoln left the White House. This is a detailed list of what objects were in each room, but they’re listed pretty simply: for example, 1 chair, 2 pillows, 1 sofa, 2 soft curtains. This documentation doesn’t include much information about what the furniture looked like.
CH: On the other hand, we do know for sure about a piece of furniture that Lincoln used at the Cottage that later ended up at the White House. This had been part of our knowledge base already, and Melissa confirmed it matches her records. The desk on which Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation here at the Cottage remained here until the late 1920s and then was taken to the White House by Mrs. Hoover. Visitors to the Cottage today can see our very careful copy.
JC: I had had a half-formed idea that everything the President did and said and used would be very meticulously documented, and this was really making me realize that that’s just not the case. Matt had some more insight:
MC: You’re right. Uh I think many of us in the modern… present are very much surprised to find out that, “Well what do you mean there wasn’t, you know, a curator standing there watching things being loaded into a wagon and recording exactly the make and model, when it came into the, you know – ” None of that really existed. Uh, in fact, you know, the White House itself didn’t really have a professional curatorial staff until the Kennedy administration. So, really not until the 1960s, was there a team of people who were professionally trained, but also their entire jobs were devoted to cataloging the items in the house, things that come into the collection, researching things that perhaps used to be in the White House, but they’ve left and we want to reacquire, and also overseeing conservation and preservation work. So really that’s, that’s a relatively new thing, when you think about it, the 1960s. Prior to that, the jurisdiction of the White House sort of vacillated between different types of government entities. You know, for a while, the Commissioner of Public Buildings was overseeing this process and doing it and overseeing inventories to submit to Congress, and then for a while, the White House sort of is passed over to the Army Corps of Engineers. It eventually then sort of recirculates back in the Department of the Interior and then today, uh, and, and really since about the 1930s, it’s had primary residence within the National Park Service. So even the property itself has changed hands between who’s really overseeing its maintenance, its upkeep, uh, and ensuring that these artifacts are taken care of. You know, most people are surprised to learn that until the 1960s, there wasn’t actually a law on the books that prevented Presidents and First Ladies from disposing of things at the White House. In fact, there were a number of these public auctions throughout the 19th century, where the furniture fund that was appropriated by Congress wasn’t enough money, and so the President and First Lady, or both of them, or one of them, walks through the house and then decides: send that to auction, send that to auction, send that to auction, and these things would get loaded up and they would be taken to the local DC auction houses. And, you know, it was glassware, china, carpeting, curtains, furniture. And you tell people this today and they’re appalled, and I tell them, “well, they saw these things as items to be used. And if a chair was worn out, or broken, or beyond repair, you know, what would you do with that chair? You would either, you would probably throw it out, right?” … And in the 19th century, you know, even the President of the United States, the First Lady of the United States, if they saw a chair that was outdated, not stylish, it was badly in need of regilding, it needed to be reupholstered, then they would get rid of it. Until, you know, 1961, there’s actually a law passed by Congress that says any of the, any of these items in the White House are sort of, you know, they’re the property of the United States government in perpetuity.
JC: So, given these gaps, how did the folks developing the initial interpretation at the Cottage approach this question? What do we do about the furniture?
CH: We spoke with Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of the Lincoln Presidential Foundation in Illinois. Erin was the CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage previously, and was the Curator and Site Administrator when the initial visitor interpretation was being developed.
Erin Carlson Mast: An important framework here is that when we began the project of restoring President Lincoln’s Cottage, the research was still in progress, and at that time the field was also, the field of preservation, the field of historic house museums, were having a lot of discussions about whether the traditional historic house museum model was dead or dying. And the traditional historic house model was defined as a historic house that was fully furnished to a specific period, and the, the visitor experience was typically coming into this fully furnished house and having a guided tour through these spaces set apart from them, so maybe you were separated by a velvet rope or a plexiglass window, or something of that sort, so you were sort of looking into the past versus being part of these historic spaces. So even though President Lincoln’s Cottage is a National Monument, and so from a preservation and restoration standpoint, we were committed to following all of the Secretary of the Interior standards, when it came to the interior and the visitor experience, there was a lot of, not only flexibility, but a keen interest from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to do something different and to create a brand new model. Layered on top of that was a mandate that came from the then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Richard Moe, and he said, “We need to do something transformative. This needs to be a transformative experience for our visitors.” And as a point of reference for what he meant by transformative, he pointed to the Holocaust Museum, which is a completely different kind of experience, is indeed very transformative, but not – it wasn’t an apples to apples situation. What we understood is that he meant this needs to be transformative on a deeply personal and a deeply emotional level. And so that, that was also really a driving force. We needed to create an experience that would cause people to think about the world differently, to think about themselves differently, and to feel things that maybe they had never felt before, and we thought that we could achieve that best through story, through inquiry, through these very human experiences in this place, that we wanted it to be intimate, that we didn’t want people to feel like they were being herded through, that they were going to have these conversations with a guide.
JC: I was curious, where had Erin and the Cottage team started with their research? What kind of boxes had they checked off to be pretty confident there wasn’t much information available about the interior?
ECM: When it came to the physical house itself, there was a tremendous amount of surviving physical fabric. A lot of our research was able to pinpoint exactly what the exterior might’ve looked like during Lincoln’s time, a lot of the physical fabric was still there. It might’ve been buried under layers of uh, linoleum or carpet or paint but a lot of it was actually intact. When it came to the interior, however, not much survived from Lincoln’s time in terms of the, the furniture or, um you know, Lincoln might’ve called them “gewgaws” that were in that space. And that’s all because, in a wonderful way, the Cottage had been in continuous use since Lincoln’s time, so by the time the National Trust for Historic Preservation began the restoration effort in the early aughts, it had been used as public affairs offices right before then. So there were metal government desks, and fans bolted to the walls and, you know, all this kind of stuff, it wasn’t, it wasn’t telling a story about the Lincoln presidency because it was being used as practical space in service to their mission which was about serving veterans, not serving the general public as a heritage site. When the team began the process of researching what was there during President Lincoln’s time, I think it’s worth pointing out that with President Lincoln you have someone who’s, there tens of thousands of books written about this person and no one to that point had focused on the 13 months or so that he had been living at the Soldier’s Home. So we had to cast a really wide net. We brought in, I mean, there was, there was a preservation advisory committee, there was a museum advisory committee. We were using renowned preservation architects who were doing a lot of this research for us as well for historic structures reports, and we were also commissioned a monograph that became Lincoln’s Sanctuary, written by Matthew Pinsker. And he did an incredible amount of research that also uncovered a lot of primary sources that really hadn’t been known, certainly not nationally, in some cases not even regionally, but maybe only known to a few people in a local library or local community. So, I mean, that book was a research project unto itself. And then there was another book written by Elizabeth Brownstein called Lincoln’s Other White House. So, in close succession, we got two books that had a tremendous amount of research that went into them, that gave us more information on how the Lincolns were using the space, who was there with them at any given time, and what these spaces looked like, felt like, sounded like based on what visitors were recording. Uh, and so that really sets the stage for, you know, it’s not like we came to the Cottage and all the original Lincoln stuff was there and we tossed it out, nor was it all there and so we, you know, sort of said “Well, how are we going to use this?” To some extent it was a blank slate – not only was the Lincoln-era stuff gone, but we, our research wasn’t turning up a lot of concrete evidence about where those items in particular might’ve been, with a few exceptions. And I hope that in that is an invitation that there is more work to be done and that there are more people needed to do that work. So, you know, sometimes people will say “oh that’s too bad that there was no interior photographs of what the Cottage looked like,” and I’m always careful to say “Well, we haven’t found any yet!”
CH: This is very true. History is an ongoing process, and there’s always more to find out. Matt agreed with Erin, that talking about the process of how we know things is key.
MC: And so I think it’s important, and Lincoln’s Cottage does this, it’s important to tell people what you know, and what you don’t know, and to couch it that way, because people need to understand that history isn’t, you know, it isn’t, as easy as people think. It’s not someone diligently recording every movement, uh, or everything that a president does or what they move or what they touch. That position didn’t exist in the 1860s, so really you have to rely on an array of sources to try to piece the story back together. We may never definitively know, but it makes it very interesting to try to figure it out, doesn’t it?
JC: While we were talking to Erin, I was struck with an image for this. If you say you are collecting information for research, you have all these tidbits, then every conclusion you come to is a bit of a construction. And it’s better not to go all the way down the road of exactly what the dining room looked like, we’re going to build out, but we’re going to stop when we run out of bricks, we’re going to go as far as we can and let you fill in from there, instead of letting you assume the road goes all the way out when it doesn’t.
ECM: Yeah, no I like this metaphor because the other, the other part of this is that we, we trusted our visitors to have imaginations, which seems obvious, right? But we knew that visitors could fill in this spaces with the stories we were telling, and that’s not to say that they were all experts in 19th century interiors, but you didn’t have to be. The point was we were asking people to imagine the feeling of what it was like in that space and what Lincoln might have been, um what he might’ve been feeling, what his visitors might’ve been thinking and feeling, and giving them enough to show them hints of that atmosphere, while at the same time emphasizing to, to your point, to the point of your metaphor, the detective work is ongoing. One of the things we were focused on is, we want to be as honest about this as we can be, and the way to be honest is to be very clear with the public on what we do know and what we don’t know. And that kind of honesty is actually radical in the historic house field where the emphasis is on the closest approximation to what was there. And I think the general public doesn’t understand that sometimes there’s a high degree of speculation that goes into that, and that many historic sites change over time in part because they discover new information that tells them, you know what? That interpretation for this room for the last 40 years? We were completely wrong. This isn’t even the type of room we thought it was, you know we thought it was a dining room, turns out it’s not that at all. And so you know we wanted to focus on this is what’s authentic, this is what’s real, and we’re going to let you get up close and personal so that you can see for yourself. So that you can touch it for yourself, so that you can walk into these spaces just like Abraham Lincoln’s visitors did 150 plus years ago.
CH: We’re getting a sense from our guests – and, honestly, we had a conviction to begin with – that there is something authentic about this place, something worth sharing, even if it’s not objects. How do we go about measuring authenticity?
JC: Our new CEO and Executive Director, Dr. Michael Atwood Mason, put it this way:
Michael Atwood Mason: I think ultimately that authenticity is about intention. There is something very moving to people when they touch the railing here and we are able to tell them that President Lincoln’s hand slid down the same railing. I’ve actually seen people tear up talking about this, it’s, there is unbelievable power in that connection to the past. And that’s the intention, is to connect it to the past. And so much of the work that we do and that other museums do is about connecting people to the past because the past represents narratives about who we are or have been, and those things influence who we want to be and who we are becoming. I am of the notion that authenticity is not necessarily the most useful lens to explore these things. I mean, does it really matter to the, to a visitor that one wall is the original plaster and another wall is not? Probably not, but there’s enough of this place that is original, there’s enough of this place that is intact, that it’s still the same place that Lincoln lived, right? I mean, I cut off four of my fingers as a kid. I don’t have one of my fingers, but I’m still the same person, essentially, right? We can lose and add things, and there is some recognizable identity that continues to exist. And for me, that’s the authentic piece.
CH: In our conversation with Rainey Tisdale, she also approached authenticity by degrees. Rainey is a museum consultant who has worked in planning, curation, and audience experience. She is a gifted museum professional and empath who got to know President Lincoln’s Cottage and our work when she led us on some workshops on trauma and loss during the pandemic.
JC: Rainey uses a metaphor for authenticity she calls “historical cooties,” which she says she picked up from fellow museum consultant Susie Wilkening. Just like elementary-school cooties, historical cooties are transmitted by touch – if Lincoln, or Washington, or another historic figure – held something, it’s got their historical cooties on it.
Rainey Tisdale: And so if an object in a museum collection has a lot of historical cooties, it makes it really authentic and really valuable, right? It increases its meaning. But you know, the, the amount of cooties is relative as well, too, right? So, we all know – not everybody, but a lot of people have heard of this concept of George Washington Slept Here, right? That’s this idea that any place George Washington ever set foot in, because he’s the first American president, he is such a big deal, any place he ever set foot in, has some of his historical cooties in it, right? But only a tiny amount, because let’s say he was, he went to visit a place for a half hour and they can say, you know, George Washington was here. If he stayed overnight on his way passing through: George Washington Slept Here. That is not the same thing as saying George Washington lived here, which would give it more historical cooties, or this was George Washington’s favorite thing ever, you know, and we look at Lincoln, right? Like, oh, he once used this spoon. Okay. Not really a big deal, very low cooties. But if it was for example, I believe Smithsonian National Museum of American History has the hat that Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated, right? Okay. So that thing is just covered in historical cooties. Incredibly authentic and powerful object because it was associated with his assassination. And so we can ask this question in relation to the Cottage. The building itself, the walls, the air – covered in, in Lincoln’s historical cooties, but, not really, you know, the objects wouldn’t really be because you don’t have, you don’t have in your collection objects with lots of his, his cooties. And so therefore it’s the building that is more special in this particular case.
JC: Rainey was talking about how a connection to a person or a place might give an object historical significance, and during our conversation with her I was thinking about a third dimension: events. That you might have maximum cooties if you had object place, event, person, all connected to the same thing.
RT: Right, Joan, that’s, that is, is an important point to make. And another way we could talk about that is, again, if we think of like levels of authenticity or levels of importance or meaning of a particular object, right? There’s like generic stuff that happens to be old. So, you know, this, this chair is 300 years old. Okay. So, that makes it a little bit important because it’s stood the test of time for so long, and it feels maybe different than a chair you could get at target, let’s say. But then, if it’s a chair that was made or owned by someone who has an important role in history, that adds to its value to its meaning, to its authenticity. But then, you could have a chair that is witness to an important event, like let’s say it was in the room when the Declaration of Independence was signed, right? [laughs] And so the object was at the place, it’s a, it’s a witness to history. Uh, but then, uh, let’s say the pen that was actually used to sign the Declaration of Independence – that is the, the object then becoming the instrument of history. And that’s like a lot of, importance, a lot of meaning.
CH: So what is authentic in the house, and how do we use it to create a meaningful experience for visitors? Like Erin said earlier, pretty much the entire structure of the house is original: walls, doors, windows, floors, fireplaces – so much of the physical fabric. When you walk through these rooms, you are in the rooms Lincoln was in.
JC: She gave us an example of how what you physically see in the house was built out using primary source evidence.
ECM: And by and large, visitors to the Lincolns, they might you know, we were able to get some surprising details and nuggets from that, like if a soldier was bringing a telegram to Abraham Lincoln and comments on Lincoln turning the cock on the gas light. So, we knew because of the physical evidence that there was gas lighting in the Cottage, we knew because of architectural records and information and details – I mean there’s a gas lighting report that’s like two inches thick, um, that was done by professor Don Linebaugh at University of Maryland, so I mean that gives you an idea of the level of detail we went into in this research. But then when it comes to what the actual gas fixtures looked like, the only piece of evidence we have is actually a 1905 photograph of a veteran, a young veteran, inside the Cottage when it was being used as, as dormitories for veterans at the Soldiers Home, and you see an electrified gasolier in the room. And that was the photographic evidence of what the design would have been in one room. On the other hand, there were a couple of occasions where we got an incredible amount of detail about something that that was important to the interpretation itself, that this was a place where Lincoln worked on Emancipation Proclamation, and an example of that is the desk. We know that there had been a desk in the Cottage throughout the Civil War, the Soldiers Home donated it, along with a few other items, to the federal government in the early 1920s, First Lady Lou Hoover decided that she wanted that desk for her husband’s office, and that desk has been in the Lincoln Bedroom ever since then. So we knew exactly where that desk was and what it looked like, but obviously the White House wasn’t going to be giving that back anytime soon. So in a case like that we did make a decision to make a high quality replica, which was itself a special request, so that we could have that as an interpretive piece inside the Cottage. But, for almost everything else, what visitors were going to be getting was a high level of interpretation from myself, who was curator at the time, and other experts like Gail Caskey Winkler, who know what would have been appropriate, but we we knew that visitors were going to walk away thinking, “That’s it, that’s exactly what it looked like,” and that just felt like it wasn’t authentic, and it felt like it was obscuring what was authentic and what was important. Because that’s the other thing we saw that the more furniture that was in a room, the more visitors wanted to talk about the furniture, and at the end of the day, it wasn’t about the furniture.
CH: You know, sometimes it surprises me that people say “There wasn’t any furniture,” because during the tour we allow visitors to sit on the furniture in the Cottage. When folks are sitting on the sofa in the Drawing Room, and they hear that story about Lincoln entering through the folding doors, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched visitors turn their heads to look towards where he would have been entering the room. Because of the story, because they’re living in the moment. And I think that is a great example of story and object and everything working together really successfully. It also means that visitors get to be participants rather than just observers, and I think that that’s a really good thing.
JC: Michael put it this way:
MAM: The way that we interpret the Cottage is really meant to pull people into their own imagination, their sense of the past, we provide incredibly detailed well-documented stories that allow visitors to see themselves in the spaces and fill them up, really, with their own visions of what happened there. It’s, I think, much more powerful because you’re engaging the heart and the mind at the same time, rather than simply reading out a whole series of facts, or getting to people only through their eyes as, as might be the case with a, a movie, for example. So for me the, the power of story is all about seeing Lincoln in these very different circumstances and having to respond, that that is the essence of story: a challenge and a response, and the number of challenges that Lincoln faced, personal and political, were just incredible. I think that story is really essential to the human animal.
JC: My next question was: what even is a museum? Can a museum exist without objects? What is out there in that regard?
CH: Here’s where Rainey started us off:
RT: Generally, part of our, you know, what, what the concept of a museum connotes, is that it is a physical place that is, uh, a public place. It’s a place where strangers can come together – there’s this concept of, of a third space, which is a, is a space that is not home, and not work, and not school and not also not government owned, where people can come together, whether it’s a coffee house, or a museum, or a park, you know, civic spaces where strangers can come together and grapple with stuff together. And sometimes even just be strangers in each other’s presence, you know, and there’s something that’s really important for us as humans, that we, we have those kinds of places, they’re important for our civil society, you know, that we are trying to create and nurture.
JC: Given Rainey’s work with a wide variety of museums, we asked her: what does the spectrum look like, of museums doing creative things with objects? What other kinds of examples are out there?
RT: Well, there’s this really interesting place in, uh, Ukraine called the Bulgakov Museum. Bulgakov was, uh, was a writer, a Ukrainian writer. And the house that he grew up in is now a historic house museum in Ukraine. And, what they do is they have some objects that have a lot of Bulgakov’s cooties, and then there are objects in the house that are just generic, old furnishings, just to sort of fill out what’s in the rooms. And what they’ve done is, they’ve painted all of the generic period objects – I think it’s white. They’re all just this monochrome, all the same color, and anything that is authentic to Bulgakov is its normal color, like, whatever material, whether it’s wood, it’s it’s brown wood or, you know, whatever it is. And so it’s really striking the way that then the painted monochrome objects just fade to the background, but they’re still there, and they kind of like give your imagination something to work with. And then every now and then there’s a, quote unquote, authentic thing. That is a really interesting take on this whole set of questions. A very imaginative place, highly recommend it if you’re ever in Ukraine. So that’s one interesting way of doing it. I know that, um, in London there’s a Benjamin Franklin House, that Franklin lived in and, I haven’t been there myself, but my understanding is that, it’s not furnished, but they have kind of a sound and light show that fills up the rooms, it’s performance based, right? And so that’s a different way of not having a collection than what you’ve done at the Cottage, which is that yours is really about interacting this human way and thinking a lot. Whereas this, this other house, this Franklin house seems to be about watching something unfold.
CH: Erin also had an example of a type of experience with history that even the most traditionally-minded would be comfortable with, that nevertheless is usually low on objects – and almost never has furniture involved:
ECM: It helped me as a way of explaining it to folks that, maybe rather than thinking about it as a historic house, to emphasize that it’s a historic site, because when you stop and think about other historic sites you visit, the idea that it’s been recreated to look like it had during a certain time period is not necessarily an expectation, and that is the most obvious in battlefields. I mean, how, how many times have you been on a historic battlefield historic site, and, you know, there’s not a bunch of period uh, or reproduction tents and cannons and all that kind of stuff all over the place, you’re being asked – I mean there’s just isn’t that same expectation, and when you think about it I mean, why is that? You still get to experience the emotional intensity of a battlefield through story, so why couldn’t it be the same thing in a historic site that happened to include the structure of a house?
JC: I also asked Michael about how he thinks about what a museum is:
MAM: So I should say, I never thought I was going to work in a museum, and I’ve spent most of my life working in museums. And at some point I looked up the origin of the word and realized that, a museum literally means, it’s the temple of the muses. So it is about inspiring people to reflect, to learn, inspiring people with beauty, with pieces of the world, and pieces of the past that move them in new directions, whether that’s new aesthetic experiences, or whether it’s new ideas about the unfinished business of our Republic. That is the work of museums in my mind. So, inspiration is always at the core. Increasingly, people in our discipline, in our world and in the museum world recognize that we have to be connected to the communities in which we operate, if we are going to be successful. And the notion that a museum should be, not just linked to a community, but should be adding to the wellbeing of a community is certainly where we’re headed. And I think one of the greatest gifts of Lincoln’s discourse to us is thinking about the nation as a project. What’s the unfinished work? And the unfinished work that he was talking about was very significant and very real. And, there’s always going to be unfinished work in a, in a body politic. And so it’s linking back to those bigger patterns and, and bigger, forces, whether that’s a powerful idea, like freedom, or it’s a story that you’ve learned from your mother’s milk about struggling for liberation, or whether it’s something much simpler. Those larger forces and patterns, I think make an enormous difference in people’s lives. And there is a way in which, particularly in a reflective museum like this, that’s certainly one of the things that we help people do.
CH: The Cottage has been a meaningful place for reflection for me, and I’ve watched it be the same for visitors. Whether they’re young people finding a voice in the fight to end modern slavery, or a family seeking connection after the loss of a child. Or, individuals illuminating the Cottage with their promises of a good deed. The Cottage is a place for thinking, and rest, and gathering resolve. And the space we made with no furniture allows you to do that.
JC: So, as you’re moving through the world these days, we’d like to invite you to think about: what are the spaces that inspire you? How can you find the rest and respite you need?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins and support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
JC: To all the visitors who’ve wondered about our furniture before, thanks for giving us a chance to tell you another story about this place.
CH: Comments? Questions? Write to us at [email protected].
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!