National Museum of American History to Open “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life”

January 5, 2009
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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth with a new exhibition, “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” opening Jan. 16, 2009. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Ford Motor Company Fund, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the History Channel.

Showcasing the museum’s major Lincoln collection, the exhibition will present more than 60 objects associated with Lincoln’s life, from an iron wedge he used to split wood in the early 1830s in New Salem, Ill., to his iconic top hat that he wore the night he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. More than 50 graphics in the form of photographs, personal portraits, painting, sketches and cartoons will also be featured throughout the exhibition.

“We are excited about bringing together for the first time this unique and unparalleled collection of Lincoln objects,” said Museum Director Brent D. Glass. “What better way to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday than by telling the story of his extraordinary life?”

Visitors to “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” will explore sections on Lincoln’s early life, his presidential campaign, the White House and the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, his assassination and the national mourning that followed. Stories about how the objects came to be in the Smithsonian collections are integrated into the exhibition, to present not only aspects of Lincoln’s life but also how he has been remembered. Lincoln’s office suit and Mary Todd Lincoln’s gown, made by Elizabeth Keckley, will be displayed together, with additional costumes and family-related objects that convey more of the history of the Lincoln family’s time in the White House.

Visitors will see Lincoln’s gold pocket watch from his days as a Springfield lawyer, the inkstand he used to draft the Emancipation Proclamation, his patent model for lifting boats and all eight prison hoods worn by the Lincoln conspirators.

Other notable objects will include plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands that were taken by Chicago artist Leonard Volk. The casts of Lincoln’s hands were taken May 20, 1860, two days after he received the nomination as the Republican Party presidential candidate. To steady his right hand in the mold, which was still swollen from shaking hands with supporters, Lincoln cut off a piece of broom handle to hold. Volk later placed the piece of broom handle in the original cast, which will be on display.

Two short videos by the History Channel will round out the exhibition. The first looks at Lincoln’s patent model for lifting boats over shoals. Lincoln was inspired to design the device after his boat became stuck in shallow waters during a trip to Niagara Falls. An animation based on an engineering analysis of the Lincoln patent model will show visitors how it would have worked. The second, an eight-minute film, sheds light on the Emancipation Proclamation and how it affected the Civil War.

“As a whole, the exhibition presents a more personal and intimate look at Lincoln. It reminds us that Abraham Lincoln, whose story has become so mythic, was a real individual. Through all his achievements, successes and tragedies, he led an extraordinary life,” said Harry Rubenstein, the exhibition’s curator and chair of the museum’s division of politics and reform.

The opening of the exhibition will coincide with the museum’s debut of “America’s New Birth of Freedom: Documents from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum” in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery.

Companion Book
With more than 150 illustrations of objects and photographs, “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” is the official companion book to the exhibition. Both the book and the exhibition present a new and intimate story of the life and legacy of this remarkable individual. Like no other American, Lincoln’s life is entwined with the history and culture of the nation. His rise from poverty to the presidency has inspired others to believe in the promise of opportunity, his success in preserving a democratic nation is one of America’s greatest triumphs and his death is an American tragedy. Written by Rubenstein, the book is published by Smithsonian Books and will be available for $12.95 in late January.

Public Programs
To explore the complex and momentous issues Lincoln confronted as President, the museum will present an exciting public dialogue series to accompany “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life.” The series will focus on the most critical and difficult decisions made by Lincoln in their historical context, as well as their meaning to modern Americans. Six free evening programs will be presented periodically during the two-year run of the exhibition and are made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The first program is planned for February 2009. Check the museum’s Web site for the schedule at

The exhibition was designed by Haley Sharpe Design, and the dedicated exhibition Web site is

The Smithsonian Institution will commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1809 with several exhibitions and opportunities to meet acclaimed Lincoln scholars and tour Lincoln-era sites. The exhibitions and events will allow visitors to immerse themselves in the history of one of the nation’s most transformative leaders. For more information, go to The dedicated Web site for the document exhibition is

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation. To learn more about the museum, visit For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).

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Solo Medios 

Melinda Machado


National Museum of American History
Press Office