Lincoln and New York
Abraham Lincoln Carte de Visite. Photo by Mathew Brady. Courtesy New-York Historical Society.
Reviewed by Betsy Wade
Yes, we're up to there with Lincoln: No history institution can pass up a bicentennial. But the New-York Historical Society, which opened its Lincoln show Oct. 9, almost eight months after the anniversary, got an unpredictable card and played it well.
The 200th anniversary of Feb. 12, 1809, by virtue of a remarkable change in the White House on January 20, brought a surge of awareness of history's surprises. Americans looked at themselves and realized they were living history in a major way, and the old anniversary shucked its grade-school costumes and came to life.
In the Historical Society's big show, created in a variety of media, there are no arrows or diagrams linking Obama to Lincoln, but it isn't hard to connect the dots. Try this: Lincoln, from Illinois, wrested his nomination from William Seward, a senator from New York. After his inauguration, he named Seward, his rival, secretary of state. Curious?
The Historical Society, the city's oldest museum, moved with a steady hand to dig under the familiar, despite the distaste the results may evoke in those who prefer simple tales. "Lincoln and New York" is a complex and unsettling story, full of anger, betrayal, violent death in the streets, racism and fault lines. It is a story few New Yorkers know and may meet with discomfort.
The show's curator, Richard Rabinowitz, said that at first it was to be called "Lincoln in New York," dealing with his known visits to the city. But after discussion with Harold Holzer, chief historian for the show, and others, it became "Lincoln and New York." This led to the unfolding, he said, of "the civil war within the Civil War" in the city. It invites consideration of Democratic New York and how long it hated Lincoln; its politics were certainly not accommodating to any Republican, especially this one.
This way we face questions about the role of the nation's major city as the trading partner of the South, its financing and supplying of a war that deeply divided the city's people. The city's 175 daily and weekly newspapers and journals came out slugging and kept it up with cartoons that thread through the show. The exhibition bypasses familiar Lincolniana — split rails, beards and hoop skirts, log cabins, reading by firelight, and Nancy Hanks — to give an account that would be hard to grasp without the show's storytelling design.
Lincoln said his nomination in 1860 was assured by two things, both made in New York: His speech in February 1860 at the Cooper Union Great Hall, and the iconic photograph taken of him that day by Matthew Brady, which became an image that erased the idea the candidate was a hick.
Lantern with portrait of Lincoln and the Union Flag. Courtesy of New-York Historical Society.
Thus, at the entrance to the show we see a video of Sam Waterston delivering the Cooper Union address from the real lectern, recorded in the real Great Hall. Next to the video screen is the lectern itself. Across the way is a mock-up of Brady's photography studio and a life-sized print of the photo. And the battle is joined.
Editors and their publications play a major role because of an "extraordinary transformation," as Rabinowitz calls it — the rapid growth in printed material in the period. From Lincoln's youth with 10 books, printing technology moved so swiftly so that by the 1860's, everyone was awash in papers and journals. Among the subtleties of the show, newspaper pages are shown not framed on walls but laid over racks, the way wet pages were dried in the mid-19th century. Because of periodicals' important role in the elections and in keeping people abreast of the war, Rabinowitz says of the show: "It's about ink."
The show presents many objects from the period. Rabinowitz said that when he and Holtzer sat down about two years ago to plan it, Holtzer had a list of 36 objects he wanted. They got 33, some of them reproductions. But the objects are integrated into the narrative rather than displayed in long cases.
One item will appeal to old-timey New Yorkers. Brooks Brothers, which grew prosperous on Civil War uniforms, created a black coat for Lincoln's second inaugural, which he also wore on the fateful evening at Ford's Theater. Embroidered on the lining is an eagle and the quotation, "One country, one destiny." In 1990, Rabinowitz said, Brooks Brothers created two of these for the re-dedication of Ford's Theater. One is in the Historical Society show. It is, as one of my early editors taught me, a true replica because it is by the same maker as the original.
An original worth reading is an 1865 notebook blog by someone unknown who wandered the streets of New York recording written and artistic tributes to the fallen President.
The exhibition has an excellent cadence. There are places where you are supposed to pause, sit and absorb sounds and sights, or in the case of the draft-riot enclosure, withstand them. At the end, as with the earlier slavery shows at the same museum, there is a booth to record ideas and impressions.
On the aural guides, there is a separate audio channel for students, created by students. But this show is probably not for younger children: Bludgeon murders of black residents by rampaging Irish residents may not be something you want to explain.
When "Lincoln and New York" closes March 25, most galleries in the museum will also shut for some time because the society is involved in a big renovation.
Do take the "History Pass" brochure at the front desk. The Historical Society and two other history museums provide coupons for their neighborhood places. In the Historical Society's case, one is for the hugely hip Shake Shack, 77th and Columbus, which gets many nods for the city's best hamburger. My advice is, take a friend along and share one milkshake.
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, entrance on 77th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024; 212 873-3400. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Free admission to members; $12 adults, $9 educators and seniors, $7 students, free to children 12 and under. Friday nights from 6 to 8 p.m., pay-what-you-like admission.
BETSY WADE writes about traveler's heath topics for Everett
Potter's Travel Report. For many years, Wade wrote the Practical Traveler column
for The New York Times