Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mr. Lincoln's Washington

Ford's Theatre, in Washington, DC has just spent two years and millions of dollars renovating the theater where Lincoln was assassinated and creating a new exhibition--so I was anxious to see the results and did so a few weeks ago. I remembered a long-ago visit, with compelling artifacts in a linoleum-floored basement exhibit space and the back bedroom across the street, where Lincoln died. Today, visitors have a much-revised experience, but to me as a visitor, it was less compelling and more frustrating. I know from my own work the many discussions, debates and compromises that happen in any exhibition process, but I came away wishing some decisions had focused more on the visitor.

The Theater expects more than a million visitors per year, and is free (though a charge from Ticketmaster to buy tickets online). The tours are timed, and so you enter the museum with a large group of other visitors. The start of the museum experience is a little disenheartening and frustrating. The crowd inches down a small staircase into the exhibit--which has a video almost at the start. That means that the audience stops to watch the video--which then means everyone else stands, waiting, on the stairs. The main label for the exhibit is placed in such a way that it's easily obscured--so you enter the space confused and a little annoyed.

Each group spends about a half hour in the exhibit space. There's lots to see--too much to see, I think, with some very crowded small spaces and then some randomly large, not very interesting spaces with not much to see. There's the war and generals; the Lincoln family; the conspirators; and four ex-presidents reciting the Gettysburg address. The crowd felt ready to leave the exhibit before the time was up--which seems curious given that there's lots to see.

Next part of the visit--a great use of a long ramped hallway into the theater. On either side of the wall is are hour-by-hour drawings of both Lincoln's and John Wilkes Booth's day on April 14, 1865. I noticed that visitors really looked and conversed here--much more so it seemed than with the high-tech video installations in the exhibit.

It was interesting to me that the experience in the theater itself was so lacking in drama. With an audience of both children and adults, we received a 20 minute monologue about the night of the assassination. Our interpreter was a fairly good story-teller, but why stand below the stage, where it's hard to be seen? And why, in a theater, wasn't the experience a bit more theatrical?

The Petersen House, across the street, was for me, a classic example of how a bad interpreter can ruin a visitor's experience. Because we had a baby with us, we left the theater a bit early and crossed the street to see if we could go through the Petersen House. As we approached, the interpreter, up the outside steps, was arguing with other visitors about what time it was and whether she could let them in. She looks at us and says, "you're a neutral party--tell them what time it is." Hmmm....and then, of course, she wanted us to leave the stroller just sitting on the street while we went through the house.

As the group comes into the house, she starts by saying very loudly, and in quite an unfriendly voice, "Don't think you're going to see that bloody pillow here," going on to say that the pillow had been conserved and was packed safely away. Virtually no other information was provided by the interpreter. Admittedly it's a very small house and a large group, but this interpreter provided an experience that we just wanted to escape as soon as possible. Quite a change from a place that I had vivid memories of.

So what would I ask the exhibit developers if I had the chance?
  • What was the big idea of the exhibit?
  • What does it mean when museum videos (also a question for the Smithsonian's Museum of American History) are all produced by the History Channel?
  • What sorts of formative visitor evaluation took place?
  • What have the staff been surprised by since the re-opening?
  • What do they wish they could have done differently?
  • Why is there absolutely no seating in the exhibit?--older people, families, all kinds of people might have made use of it.
  • What do they think are real successes in the interpretation?
  • Did the ongoing use of the theater as a theater preclude a more complex object theater presentation of the assassination itself?
  • How are interpreters trained and evaluated?
  • Was there any thought to how visitors could share their perspectives and thoughts?
  • How could it be made a more meaningful and reflective experience?
And for visitors, what is the main idea they take away?

If you're interested in Lincoln, I found the Lincoln exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History a much more engaging experience. It starts with a great introductory label (below) and gives a sense of the complexity of Lincoln, without the cacophony I found in the Ford's Theater exhibit.

I'm surprised sometimes when I meet museum staff who aren't really museum visitors. For me, being a visitor is a great reminder to keep the visitor/audience/community at the forefront of what we do.


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Great post, Linda. I think your dissection of your experience will be helpful to many readers.

Tim Clarke, Jr. said...

What a great blog. I too visited Ford's just after the reopening last month. It's a triumph and the Park Service and the Ford's Theatre Society should be congratulated for their achievement, too, regardless of some of the nagging issues that some visitors will realize upon visiting the museum. I too was put off by that first staircase and the blockage at the bottom. The talk we saw had the interpreter on the stage, and while I thought it was overlong, I'd seen it before years ago, but many of the tourists seeing the building for the first time were entranced. Thanks for your blog, keep up the great work.

skydog7 said...

Linda, great post. I really like how you think about these things (you and I are really of like mind).

The next trip to DC, go to President Lincoln's Cottage. It's a bit out of the way but is a really visceral Lincoln experience.

BTW, did you know that the original Ford's Theatre burned down in the 19th century? They don't tell you that.

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.