Indiana State Museum Lincoln exhibit now open in Indianapolis

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Lincoln is mentioned in Hollywood circles, it’s all about the film’s 12 Oscar nominations. At the Indiana State Museum, however, the Lincoln buzz is all about its newest exhibition: The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family, which premiered Feb. 9. The Indiana State Museum is the only venue for this exhibition, which will run through Aug. 4.
Visitors through March 2 can also view a rare copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery, and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Because the fragile documents cannot be exposed to light for long periods of time, they are rarely on display.
The Indiana State Museum exhibition spans five generations of the Lincolns, who first came to Indiana in 1816. The museum wanted to offer a different, more personal perspective, said Dale Ogden, senior curator of cultural history.
“There is no one person more mythologized than Abraham Lincoln,” Ogden said. “This exhibition will help break some of the myths, while also giving visitors a greater understanding of the very complex Lincoln family throughout five generations.”
More than 150 objects will be on display, including handwritten letters, photographs, Tiffany jewelry, candelabra and other family keepsakes. The Indiana State Museum has what some consider is one of the world’s most important collections of Lincoln artifacts – The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection – given to Indiana in 2008. Objects from this collection will be joined by about 40 artifacts on loan from several of America’s leading historical institutions.
Highlights of The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family include:
• The Sum Book – With less than two years of formal schooling, at age 15, Abraham Lincoln carefully assembled sheets of paper and created his own book on which to practice math problems. Over the years, the pages were separated, but the Indiana State Museum has five pages on display. It is the largest grouping ever shown in one place.
• A cabinet designed and crafted (c. 1818) by Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas. Not knowing its history, a Newburgh man bought the cabinet – then painted green – at a sale. He used it to store nuts, bolts and other items in his garage. In 2009, his son read an Evansville newspaper article featuring Steve Haaf, a South Spencer High School teacher, who restores and makes replicas of Thomas Lincoln’s furniture. While Thomas Lincoln is often portrayed as a ne’er-do-well, this cabinet demonstrates he was a true craftsman who used intricate designs and overlays in his work. This detail is especially impressive considering the rudimentary tools with which he had to work.
• Mary Todd’s Meissen porcelain figurine (c. 1835). Mary Todd Lincoln was a prolific collector of the figurines, which were made in Meissen, Germany. Moviegoers may have noticed these on the big screen. To a historian, the collection demonstrates Mary Todd’s elite upbringing. The exhibition also features a tea set crafted by a London potter, who also worked for Queen Victoria. Mary Lincoln used the tea set to serve coffee, tea and hot chocolate to guests at the Lincolns’ Springfield, Ill., home.
• Toys the Lincoln boys played with at the White House, including a toy cannon Secretary of War Stanton acquired for the youngest son, Tad. Knowing the boy was rambunctious – the two youngest sons were known to race their pet goats in the White House – Stanton disabled the fully-functional firing mechanism.
• The insanity verdict following Mary Lincoln’s trial in 1875. For 10 years, Mary Lincoln struggled to cope with the death of her children and her husband. Her oldest son, Robert, had her arrested and charged with insanity. She was convicted and remanded to Bellevue Place sanitarium near Chicago. Historians for years have been at odds over Robert’s motives for having his mother committed.
• Photographs of the last documented Lincoln descendants, siblings Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith and Mary “Peggy” Lincoln Beckwith, who were great-grandchildren of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. They were raised at Hildene, the family estate in Vermont.
The Indiana State Museum is located in White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis. For more information, call (317) 232-1637 or visit indianamuseum.org.