Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibit: Getting Ready for Prime Time

Image of the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was assassinatedExhibits, especially major ones, take a lot of planning, often years’ worth.

There is fund-raising, exhibit design, curatorial work, object selection, conservation, writing the label texts, brochure design, fabrication, mounting, installation … and several other steps that I’m undoubtedly forgetting.

On Feb. 12, we’re opening the major exhibition “With Malice Toward None,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, made possible through the generosity of Union Pacific Corporation.

Even though that’s more than three months away, a lot of those steps have already taken place.

Yesterday, I got a glimpse of just one of the stages in the process. Just hours after objects for the exhibit were delivered to the Conservation Division, I visited our science lab to get an idea of the kind of preparatory work that is done before they’re put on public display.

Conservators of all kinds will be giving the objects various degrees of TLC over the next several weeks. Some documents will be “bathed” or treated to reduce the acidity and slow the decomposition of the ink and paper. Others may be delicately mended. Some pages will be “desilked” — which reverses a preservation process done briefly around the turn of the 20th century whereby a think layer of silk was applied to documents — in favor of modern techniques.

I hope to be able to link to a little more in-depth commentary on this process soon. In the meantime, I snapped a couple of photos with my phone that I wanted to share, and I’ve linked in this post.

The first is a box holding the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was assassinated; the second is the seed-pearl and gold necklace and matching bracelets worn often by Mary Todd Lincoln. The objects came to the Library in the 1930s as a bequest from Lincoln’s granddaughter.

They have been on display at the Library before, but because of conservation requirements, they’re rarely seen by the public. Starting Feb. 12, you will get another such opportunity. Stay tuned for more!

6 Comments

  1. Frank
    October 31, 2008 at 7:33 am

    It appears that this will be a great exhibit. Thanks for posting about it in advance. It gives some of us time to plan ahead for travel, hotel, etc. It would be great to see updates posted on the preparations and progress of the show. Earlier this year I oversaw a project to record civil war artifacts as three-dimensional laser holograms. There’s much to be excited about with preservation and display technologies lately!

  2. Justin Thorp
    October 31, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Matt, thanks for posting about this. If you didn’t blog about it, I’m not sure that I would have known about it happening.

    Also… I love the behind the scenes type stuff. Video would be great. I’d recommend checking out the Flip Mino Video camera. Do a google search for it. Makes it super easy to do quick interviews and then you can throw it on YouTube.

  3. Matt Raymond
    October 31, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    We definitely will, Frank!

    And thanks for the tip, Justin.

  4. Bob Meade
    October 31, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks. I’m impressed with the quality of the camera phone pics anyway – and I’m sure you had to use just the available light too.

  5. Diane Vogt-O’Connor
    November 4, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Interested in why the Mary Lincoln pearls and some other items are rarely on display “because of conservation requirements?” Our professional organization, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) defines “conservation” as “The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future.” Basically conservators are all about making fragile cultural property sustainable so that it is available for your children and your grandchildren. Future generations may have new tools, new theories, or new methods to test out against valuable and unique original collection items such as books, photographs, documents and records, as well as Mary Lincoln’s pearls.

    The lights, temperature, relative humidity, and other environmental factors found in exhibit environments may speed deterioration, shortening the life expectancy of unique original items. When not on display, digital technologies allow us to view and work with high quality copies for most purposes, while keeping fragile originals safe. So, conservators will carefully determine how long valuable original items can withstand exhibit conditions, while still being available to future generations for new exhibits, copy technologies, and research usages.

    Conservators also examine fragile original items, document them, treat them, and provide preventive care to them, such as rehousing, monitoring their storage environments, and saving them in case of emergencies. Conservators also conduct research that results in exciting new treatments, tools, and technologies, some of which are listed on our Website at: http://www.loc.gov/preserv/. At this site you also will find a section on Preparing, Protecting, Preserving Family Treasures, to assist you in saving your family’s history.

    Finally conservators want to explain who we are and what we do, through public education so that the world understands, “why conservation matters.” Conservation is how the past is sustained for the enrichment of the future. Thanks for reading Matt’s blog on our conservation lab. We love to be able to share our work with you.

  6. Diane Vogt-O’Connor
    November 13, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Are you interested in why the Mary Lincoln pearls and some other items are rarely on display “because of conservation requirements?” The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) defines “conservation” as “The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future.”

    Conservators are all about making fragile cultural property sustainable so that it is available for your children and their children’s children. Future generations likely will have new tools, new theories, and new methods to test out against irreplaceable original collection items (such as books, photographs, documents and records, as well as Mary Lincoln’s pearls.)

    The lights, temperature, relative humidity, and other environmental factors found in exhibit environments may speed deterioration, shortening the life expectancy of unique original items. So, conservators will carefully determine how long valuable original items can withstand exhibit conditions, while still ensuring that the originals will be available to future generations for new exhibits, copy technologies, and research usages.

    Conservators also examine fragile original items, document them, treat them, and provide preventive care to them, such as monitoring their storage environments and saving them in case of emergencies as well as conducting research that results in exciting new treatments, tools, and technologies, some of which are listed on our Website at: http://www.loc.gov/preserv/. At the LC’s Preservation Directorate web pages, you also will find a section on “Preparing, Protecting, Preserving Family Treasures,” to assist you in saving your family’s history.

    Finally, conservators want to explain who we are as professionals and what we do to preserve the past for the future. We want you to know “why conservation matters,” so you will join us in sustaining the best of the past’s cultural property for the use by the brightest of the future.

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