A Lincoln-Inspired Visit to Washington DC

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by Beth J. Harpaz

Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Lincoln’s famous top hat, brown and glossy with age, is currently on display here in the "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963" exhibit (second floor east through Sept. 15). Lincoln was tall at 6 foot 3 (1.9 meters) and the hat made him even taller. He wore the hat to Ford’s Theatre the night he was murdered.

The "Changing America" exhibit portrays the sweep of history from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, he stood at the Lincoln Memorial and echoed Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, which began, "Four score and seven years ago." King’s opening line: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." (Score is an archaic term for 20 years.)

Another treasure is in the museum’s "The First Ladies" exhibit (third floor): Mary Todd Lincoln’s purple velvet gown with white satin piping, mother of pearl buttons and an enormous hoop skirt. The dress was made by her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, an African-American woman who had purchased her own freedom.

"The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" (third floor east) highlights other Lincoln objects including hand casts made two days after he was nominated for presidency, showing his right hand still swollen from shaking so many hands. Uniforms, weapons and other Civil War relics can be seen in "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" (third floor east).

Located between 12th and 14th streets on Constitution Avenue NW, free and open daily.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery

Smithsonian American Art Museum
"The Civil War and American Art" (first floor west), on display through April 28, offers paintings portraying what the museum describes as the "transformative impact of the Civil War and its aftermath." An 1865 landscape painting of Yosemite Valley notes that Lincoln set aside the California wilderness as America’s first federally protected park. Other works show scenes of soldiers.

Many of the most thought-provoking images depict African-Americans fleeing slavery or contemplating their new postwar lives. The exhibit includes paintings by some of the era’s most important artists, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford.

In the National Portrait Gallery, you’ll find a photo made of Lincoln in a local studio in 1865, a painting of the president by George P.A. Healy, and plaster casts of Lincoln’s face - one made early in his tenure, another made later showing the toll the war took on his gaunt features - along with casts of his hands.

Located at Eighth and F streets NW, free and open daily.

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