The value of relics

by Dale Ogden, Senior Curator of Cultural History

According to a note penned on this splinter, the fragment is purported to be “From the table used to examine Booth’s body.” After Booth was killed, an autopsy was conducted on a rough carpenter’s bench aboard the federal monitor Montauk.

According to a note penned on this splinter, the fragment is purported to be “From the table used to examine Booth’s body.” After Booth was killed, an autopsy was conducted on a rough carpenter’s bench aboard the federal monitor Montauk.

Attempting to touch the life of a great person by obtaining a personal souvenir has been a human compulsion since medieval hucksters scammed the faithful by supplying countless splinters from what they claimed to be the “True Cross” of Jesus. When these entrepreneurs ran out of sacred relics they simply cut down a sapling and made more. It’s not surprising that such an industry developed around the martyred President Lincoln almost immediately upon his assassination. Chips of wood from the house in which he died, remnants of sheets from the deathbed, flakes of stone from Ford’s Theatre, and scraps of clothing from those in attendance were among the artifacts prized for their intimate connection to the great and terrible event.

Even the most minute remnants of artifacts related to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination have become treasured relics. These few strands, glued to a note card, are ostensibly from the rope used to hang one of the conspirators, David Herold.

Even the most minute remnants of artifacts related to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination have become treasured relics. These few strands, glued to a note card, are ostensibly from the rope used to hang one of the conspirators, David Herold.

That some of these relics are authentic, while others were manufactured for financial gain, has had little relevance to their place in the American imagination for nearly 150 years. At some point, whether a specific relic is authentic or not becomes almost beside the point. Of course, a key task of a museum is to separate the real from the fake. Museums are repositories of genuine artifacts and the true stories they tell. That a minuscule or obscure object may be said to represent a great event can become a sidebar in its own right, however. The need for emotional healing can facilitate the financial schemes of petty hucksters.

For many years, this swatch of fabric, which is preserved in the LFFC, was purported to be from the dress of actress Laura Keene, the female lead in “Our American Cousin” the night of Lincoln’s murder. According to legend, Keene rushed to the Presidential Box to comfort the stricken leader, cradling his bloody head in her lap. Whether or not this story is accurate, recent examination suggests this fragment dates to the 1890s, three decades after the murder, and 20-some years after Keene’s death. At one time or another, most historical organizations east of the Mississippi River have claimed to possess a “fragment of Laura Keene’s dress.”

For many years, this swatch of fabric, which is preserved in the LFFC, was purported to be from the dress of actress Laura Keene, the female lead in “Our American Cousin” the night of Lincoln’s murder. According to legend, Keene rushed to the Presidential Box to comfort the stricken leader, cradling his bloody head in her lap. Whether or not this story is accurate, recent examination suggests this fragment dates to the 1890s, three decades after the murder, and 20-some years after Keene’s death. At one time or another, most historical organizations east of the Mississippi River have claimed to possess a “fragment of Laura Keene’s dress.”

By the spring of 1865, more than 1,000,000 Americans had become casualties of the Civil War. A comparable loss today would equate to more than 200 times the American casualties suffered in the war in Iraq. Much of the country lay in ruins, with untold numbers of farms, roads, trains, bridges and businesses destroyed. Political systems from national to community levels were in chaos. Despite the end of hostilities, the future of the country remained in doubt. The American psyche was in great need of reassurance. Attributing such inconceivable loss to a sacred cause led by an almost divine figure was an understandable first step in a national healing that remains incomplete to this day.

The Indiana State Museum’s Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection (LFFC) contains several relics associated with the murder of the nation’s 16th president. Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Lincoln Life Insurance Company began assembling this collection in 1915, and the museum acquired the accumulated treasure in 2009.

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Just for the fun of it!

by Dale Ogden, Senior Curator of Cultural History

I’ve dealt with some pretty heavy business in the exhibitions I’ve curated at the Indiana State Museum during the course of my career. Years ago, we produced Indiana at War, which chronicled the state’s involvement in America’s military conflicts. One of my favorites, Objects of Desire: Cars and Clothes of the Jazz Age featured classic Indiana-made automobiles like Duesenberg and Stutz. The sexy cars and slinky clothing, though, were just period props that allowed us to talk about things like Prohibition, racial mixing in jazz clubs and the rise of organized crime. 2010’s With Charity for All, our contribution to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial observation, involved such lighthearted topics as chronic depression, the loss of a child, the slaughter at Antietam and assassination.

So, every now and again, it’s nice to do an exhibition if for no other reason than just the pure fun of it. Chaos is a Friend of Mine: Cultural Icons from the Jim Irsay Collection would qualify as one of those projects.

From 1979 to 1989, "Tiger" served as the main instrument for the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. On loan from the collection of James. S. Irsay.

For the uninitiated, Indy will host Super Bowl XLVI in February and everybody in town is looking for a way to get on the bandwagon. Our in is that Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay will host the NFL Owner’s Party at the museum a few days before the big game. I hear it will involve several hundred of Mr. Irsay’s closest friends, an A-list comic as MC, some well-known Baby Boomer rock-n-rollers for entertainment and a smidgen of top-shelf libations.

To our great good fortune, in addition to owning the local NFL franchise, Mr. Irsay is also a collector of international reputation. His prize possession is Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot-long manuscript scroll of the Beat Generation manifesto On the Road. But Irsay’s interests are remarkably … eclectic. In addition to the aforementioned treatise, guitars that belonged to Elvis Presley, Keith Richards, George Harrison and others are among the artifacts he has acquired. Austin Powers’ famed horn-rimmed glasses, a copy of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail script, letters from Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, and a myriad of other treasures are to be found within the Irsay Collection.

We’ll be exhibiting a sampling from this trove from Jan. 27 through May 6. It’s been a fun project to assemble. Any time you have the opportunity to quote Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Frankenstein and George Will in the same text, you’ve got to enjoy yourself. More to come.

Bringing Civil War History to Life in the 21st Century

Spring is slowly budding around the city and basketball fever is in the air. Many who choose to enjoy downtown Indianapolis during this time of year are pleasantly surprised to come upon a program that takes place annually at the Indiana State Museum on the last Saturday in March.

For the fifth year, the museum is hosting the 1st Irish Infantry of the 35th Indiana Volunteers, a local Civil War re-enactors group.  This is always one of my favorite programs to work as visitors to the museum have a chance to interact with re-enactors who portray both soldiers and civilians from the Civil War-era. Inside the museum, visitors learn about all sorts of aspects of daily life for soldiers as well as how Irish immigrants answered the call of duty along with native-born Americans. Ladies walk around the museum in their mid-19th century clothing and discuss how the war affected daily life on the home front. Everyone seems to enjoy the outdoor portion the best as the re-enactors use the museum’s front lawn to demonstrate drills and then allow visitors to participate in a mock skirmish.

Don’t miss this chance to interact with history! The 5th Annual Civil War Spring Drill is Saturday, March 27 from noon to 3:30 p.m. And while you are here, don’t miss a chance to visit the two Abraham Lincoln exhibitions currently showing at the museum.

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Welcome new docents!

Written by Karine Huys, volunteer coordinator at the Indiana State Museum

How time flies! It seems like just yesterday (even though it was early September) that the third class of docents began their training here at the museum. They graduated as full-fledged docents on Wednesday — and just in time!

Docents, docents-in-training and volunteers alike have been hard at work filling volunteer positions associated with the Lincoln exhibits. The graduating class will have their first chance to officially volunteer as docents during the Going Green festival here at the Indiana State Museum in late March, where they will staff an activity about water turbidity (turbid: deficient in clarity or purity according to Webster). A few of them will get to try their hand at giving an Architecture Tour to a group of museum visitors. And as bookings for tours continue to pick up as the weather (hopefully) improves, they will all get a turn at leading tours.

Congratulations to Steve, Barbara, Larry, Bob, Glenda, Donna, April, Herb and Robert!

Find out more about our Docent program.

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The floodgates are open!

Written by Dale Ogden, chief curator of cultural history at the Indiana State Museum

Holy cow! It looks like we may have pulled this thing off! I mean, staff at the Indiana State Museum are gratified and encouraged by the public’s reaction to the unveiling of the recently opened Lincoln exhibitions.

Curator and blogger Dale Ogden, Abraham Lincoln and Dale Martin of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce.

Governor Daniels and company helped cut the ribbon for about 200 VIPs on Feb. 12. Two days later we had nearly 600 at the big For the Love of Lincoln Gala, and according the society pages of the local newspaper, the soirée was a smashing success. My tux’s burgundy vest was a very nice touch, thank you very much.

The crowds started coming the first day we opened to the public, and it appears they may have peaked this weekend. I understand we had over 1,300 visitors on Saturday, and guest services tells me that yesterday (Sunday) has been even busier. Members Only and extended public hours had dozens of patrons in the galleries until 8 p.m. for several days last week.

None of that would account for anything if the experience wasn’t top of the line. I’m hearing that the show is everything people were hoping for. Abe’s poem about Indiana, the contents of his pockets the night of his assassination and the Bible upon which both he and President Obama took their oaths are particular crowd favorites in the Library of Congress exhibit. For Civil War buffs, Lincoln’s correspondence with McClellan, Hooker, Burnside and several of his other generals is especially compelling.

In our Lincoln Financial Foundation portion of the project, visitors are drawn to the family photos owned by four generations of the family. Of course, signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment are evoking powerful reactions. It’s also great fun to see kids watching video of their peers discussing Mr. Lincoln.

The piece the History Channel put together is a personal favorite. Watching Marian Anderson sing and Dr. King speak from the steps of the Memorial is moving, and it’s entertaining to watch Republicans and Democrats — left and right — all claim the Lincoln mantle. Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck both make great Lincolns, but I get the biggest kick out of Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We always felt there would be something for everyone in this exhibition. There is.

Come see us! I guarantee you’ll be kicking yourself for a long time if you don’t.

The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection was given to the State of Indiana in December 2008 by the Lincoln Financial Foundation. The Indiana State Museum is home to the historic objects and art while most of the books, documents and photographs reside at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne.

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Installing Lincoln

Installing a museum exhibit is pretty easy, right? Just throw the artifacts in some boxes, transport them to their galleries and hang ’em up or set them out in display cases. NOT! Months, sometimes even years, of planning come before installation begins.

We are now down to a few short weeks of installation madness before both Lincoln exhibits, With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition and With Charity for All: The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, open at the Indiana State Museum on Feb. 12. Both exhibits are being installed simultaneously, adding to the growing anxieties and craziness. Work began last week with the museum’s exhibits department painting gallery walls and getting wall graphics installed. The Library of Congress cases and the new With Charity for All exhibit cases were lined up and installed in their appointed places within each gallery earlier this week. The time has arrived to start installing the artifacts.

Installing two separate exhibits at the same time is quite an undertaking, but one Indiana State Museum staff has completed many times prior to the Lincoln exhibits. However, installing two separate shows, one loaned and one created in-house, is a different challenge. And when you consider that many of the items in the exhibits are national treasures … well, let’s just say that stress levels are high.

We began installing artifacts from the Lincoln Financial Foundation collection on Monday. These artifacts are part of the first exhibit created by the Indiana State Museum since the State of Indiana acquired the collection from Lincoln Financial. Staff from the Library of Congress arrive next week to begin installation of the artifacts for With Malice Toward None. All artifacts from the Library of Congress exhibit must be uncrated, unwrapped, condition reported and then installed into the correct exhibit case. It will be a crazy few weeks at the museum for staff involved in the installation, but well worth our efforts once both exhibits open to the public.

  

The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection was given to the State of Indiana in December 2008 by the Lincoln Financial Foundation. The Indiana State Museum is home to the historic objects and art while most of the books, documents and photographs reside at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne.

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Prozac, anyone?

Written by Dale Ogden, chief curator of cultural history at the Indiana State Museum

Twenty-seven days, two hours, six minutes ‘til we cut the ribbon and open the Lincoln exhibits to a select group of VIPs. The general public – by the thousands – will begin entering the galleries 16 hours later. I used to think anxiety attacks were invented by narcissistic baby-boomers. Being one myself, I can get away with saying that about my people.

I am not suffering an anxiety attack. I can, however, see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that bright beam focuses one’s attention with a bracing intensity. Let’s say great anticipation rather than high anxiety. That’s much more confident – accurate, too.

We’re in great shape. The Library of Congress portion of the project is in the house. Artifacts like the Bible Abraham Lincoln (and Barack Obama) took their oaths on, and a hand-written copy of Abe’s first inaugural address are acclimating to our environment. We’ll start unpacking crates on Monday.

We’ve signed off on proofs of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection exhibit script, and all the support graphics, and we’re going over final elevations for which artifacts are going in which cases. All the mounts for our artifacts are built, conservation is largely complete, and our new display cases are in staging waiting to be placed in the galleries.

Plans for staff and volunteer training, visitor traffic control and security are in place. Schedules for “Members Only” functions are established. Educational programming and entertainment activities are a go. I’m doing the two to four press opportunities a week – print and electronic media – that I’ll be doing through February, in addition to the customary appearances before service groups and other interested organizations.

Production of a souvenir brochure is in the final stages. Video clips for the Lincoln trivia kiosk have been received from the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, the Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, PBS analyst Tavis Smiley and several other Hoosier notables. Indiana’s most infamous cat, Garfield, has cut a clip that we haven’t seen yet. The “Kids Look at Lincoln” video is almost done. It’s great, and not just because my two little clones are the stars of the show. Planning for the ribbon cutting and celebration gala are proceeding full throttle. There’s more, much more!  I’m waaaay past my word limit – again!  Crud!  I understand we already have over 10,000 reserved timed-tickets via our website. Come see us!

Anxiety attack!?! Pish-posh. Piece-O-cake!

The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection was given to the State of Indiana in December 2008 by the Lincoln Financial Foundation. The Indiana State Museum is home to the historic objects and art while most of the books, documents and photographs reside at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne.

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