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Lincoln’s legacy only flourishes, his facets only multiply

James Carroll for The Boston Globe

Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, a new $25 million museum across from Ford’s Theatre, is next to the brick Petersen House, where President Lincoln died.

WASHINGTON — And now, the rest of the story.

Ford’s Theatre is the most visited place off the National Mall, drawing 750,000 people annually to the dramatic story of President Lincoln’s assassination 147 years ago at the close of the Civil War.

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But the aftermath of Lincoln’s murder and an exploration of his legacy have received, by necessity of space, less attention at the site.

Until now.

The theater has opened a new $25 million museum that continues the compelling, multifaceted Lincoln narrative down to the present day.

The Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, as the new facility is called, is part of the expanding Lincoln campus, in coordination with the National Park Service, on downtown’s 10th Street N.W.

“This is the place where Lincoln’s legacy lives,” said Paul Tetreault, director of the Ford’s Theatre Society, which operates the center.

The most striking feature of the new space is a 34-foot-tall tower of books on Lincoln, which soars through the middle of a spiral staircase. Some 200 titles from about 15,000 books about Lincoln are repeated in the pillar of 7,000 aluminum books, a tribute to the enduring appeal of the 16th president among biographers, historians, and the public.

Think of the new museum as the fourth act of a play, Tetreault said.

Ford’s Theatre itself is the first act. There, visitors can walk in Lincoln’s steps into the theater, gaze on his presidential box, and see the stage to which actor John Wilkes Booth leaped after shooting the president in the back of the head at nearly point-blank range.

In the museum below the theater, the story of the tragedy unfolds in greater detail (second act) with exhibits on the Lincoln presidency and the Civil War, enhanced by artifacts from the days around the shooting on April 14, 1865.

Across the street at the Petersen House is the third act of the story, the rooming house where the wounded president was carried and placed on a too-short bed. There, Lincoln took his final, shallow breaths and died on the morning of April 15.

Now visitors move from the Petersen House directly into the new museum, entering a gas-lighted Washington street on the morning of Lincoln’s death, the sound of church bells tolling in the distance.

The trail of the Lincoln story goes through a replica of the president’s funeral car. Some artifacts are displayed that have never been seen until now, such as decorations clipped from Lincoln’s catafalque and Booth’s map book.

At the open slats of a replica Virginia tobacco barn, Booth can be seen in the shadows, resisting capture by troops 12 days after he fled the theater.

In detailing the trial of the assassination conspirators, the manacles that held the prisoners and a hood that covered their heads are on display, as are snips of ropes from the gallows.

The turmoil of Andrew Johnson’s presidency and Reconstruction and the persistence of racial inequality also are covered in the exhibits.

The aftermath of the Lincoln assassination was “the biggest storytelling challenge, because there is no obvious narrative,” presidential historian and author Richard Norton Smith said.

He served as the new museum’s history consultant and played a central role in the design of the exhibits.

“There are a number of various ways of looking at the dynamic Lincoln, the posthumous Lincoln, who in a very real sense is as alive today as ever,” Smith said.

There is also a paradox about the man: “Lincoln is the most recognizable figure in American history, but that doesn’t mean he is the most universally understood,” Smith noted.

The new museum tries to dissect the many facets of Lincoln, symbolized by that tower of books.

A temporary exhibition running until July focuses on qualities of leadership, using Lincoln’s empathy and tolerance, integrity, courage, creativity and innovation, and ideals of equality to address problems of our time.

People are invited to share their thoughts on sticky notes, and they do.

“Be awesome to somebody — Cooper,” says one. Another says: “The Golden Rule! Treat people the way you want to be treated. Love, Abraham.”

If you go...

Ford’s Theatre

511 10th St., N.W. Washington, D.C.

202-347-4833

www.fords.org

Besides the theater itself, there is a museum below it that covers Lincoln’s presidency, the Civil War, and aspects of his assassination. The Petersen House, across the street, is where Lincoln died. Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership is next door to the Petersen House and includes museum exhibits and spaces for school programs, workshops, and professional development for teachers. Box office opens at 8:30 a.m. (except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day); site opens at 9 a.m.; final entry to the museum is 4 p.m.; final entry to the theater is 4:30 p.m.; final entry to the Petersen House and Center exhibits is 5:30 p.m. A limited number of free tickets for the entire complex are available daily at the theater box office beginning at 8:30 a.m. Advance tickets are $2.50. Theater admission is sometimes restricted because of theatrical productions.

James R. Carroll can be reached at vernoncarroll@cox.net.
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