Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Abe's America

Andrew Ferguson has done for Abraham Lincoln fans in his Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), while Tony Horowitz did for Civil War re-enactors in his Confederates in the Attic. Ferguson starts off his book considering the controversy generated in Richmond, Virginia by the erection of a statute of the martyred president – not a century ago but in 2003. Ferguson subsequently explores the collecting of Lincoln materials by Lincoln’s former law partner and friend, William Herndon, for his biography; modern day acquisition of Lincoln related artifacts and archives; Lincoln impersonators; the historic preservation of Lincoln sites; and efforts to generate tourism dollars by the Lincoln Heritage Trail. While Horowitz’s book is mainly a humorous treatment of the reenactors, Ferguson’s humor is subtler and may be sensed primarily by how the individual reader views Lincoln. Ferguson is a Lincoln-addict, no doubt, but from time to time we come across hysterically funny assessments of the Lincoln-mania, such as in his description of the Association of Lincoln Presenters: “Few of the Abes of the ALP take offense . . . when you point out that many of the members look even less like Abraham Lincoln then, for example, your grandmother does” (p. 155). Who even knew that there was such an association?

There is a lot in this book that archivists will be interested in. Ferguson provides a poignant outside perspective of the impact of newer historical perspectives on the collections of history museums and archives. After discussing the collecting by Charles Gunther of Lincoln and other archival and artifactual materials and their donation to the Chicago Historical Society in the 1920s, Ferguson laments what recent efforts to update the CHS have resulted in. Ferguson fondly remembers the old style exhibits on Lincoln and notes, “Whatever its ideological and methodological merits, new history is boring. The marketing premise was precisely wrong: people don’t want to come to museums to see themselves” (p. 88). Most of us, applauding the efforts to create exhibits that may be more educational and less celebratory, probably have lost sight of this problem – or we may disagree with Ferguson’s conclusion. However, there are other topics explored by Ferguson where we may share more sympathetic views. Ferguson’s lengthy discussion about the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and its use of Disney designers as consultants, provides an interesting contrast to newer historical exhibitions and an interesting footnote to the discussions about the role and utility of presidential libraries.