Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. I remember going with my family back when I was in the 5th grade, but I heard there had been significant renovations and I was very curious to see this cultural landmark again with new eyes.
What I found couldn’t have been more of an enjoyable and immersive experience into Lincoln’s life and legacy. Even though the line stretched almost a full city block back towards Pennsylvania Ave, I quickly found myself descending into the heart of the museum. With those first steps down, the museum takes you back in time to the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency and his trip into the capital city for his inauguration.
The museum guests are greeted with the sound of a steam engine whistle and a figure of Lincoln garbed in the actual disguise he wore while waiting for the train that snuck him into the capital, avoiding an unsuccessful assassination plot.
The level of detail and artifacts that surround you throughout the museum completely engulf and beckon you along the journey with Lincoln through his presidency. The stage is set perfectly as a partially finished capitol building is erected as the backdrop for an intro video of Lincoln’s inauguration. The dark cloud that is the brooding Civil War is introduced. A crowd of life-sized figures depict the chaos in Lincoln’s first days assigning a Cabinet. You can feel the emotion and tragedy of the Lincoln family after losing Willie, Lincoln’s son. More and more of the rich details in this man’s life and the obstacles he overcame are laid out before you as you travel through the museum and its exhibits.
Just before you begin your ascent into the theatre above, you are introduced to the conspirators that played a part in his death. These life-sized figures seem to lurk around a full display of many of the artifacts that were part of their plan. The actual gun Booth fired is suspended in a glass case in front a full wall depiction of the event from a Currier & Ives lithograph. The door that sealed Lincoln inside the theatre and the Brooks Brothers suit he was wearing at the time of his death are there, too.
My group in the theatre was lucky enough to be guided by Arthur Doyle, the same park ranger who gave Robert Redford his own personal tour before he made the movie “The Conspirator”. His knowledge on the subject was immense and we all thoroughly enjoyed the level of detail he provided while taking in the powerful view of the balcony where President Lincoln was shot.
The tour was far from over as we walked across the street to the Petersen House. This is where Lincoln was taken after the shooting, and where he passed soon thereafter. The first floor of the home remains exactly the same as it was that night. The sitting room where Mary Todd waited. The boarding room bed where Lincoln passed.
An elevator takes you up to the 4th floor where you resume your journey after Lincoln’s death. You exit the elevator to walk down a path recreating the boots from the military procession and grooves from the horse drawn coffin down Pennsylvania Ave. Gas lights flicker as you walk through a detailed retelling of his funeral train that toured seven states and ended in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. You are then invited to join in the manhunt and follow Booth’s path and he fled south and from the pursuit of authorities. You can even look through the cracks of a recreated barn to see Booth’s figure hiding in the shadows.
From there you start your descent into Lincoln’s legacy as you are greeted in the staircase by a 4-story tower of the books written about Lincoln. Memorabilia and his effect on our culture fill the 3rd floor. Examples of everything from Lincoln logs to comic books to even shoes depicting his face. The lasting effect of his legacy is shown through future presidents following his path and the building of the Lincoln Memorial. On the second floor, you are invited to post your own thoughts of Lincoln’s legacy and how his ideals of courage, integrity and equality have affected us all.
Upon walking back out to 10th St, I was thoroughly impressed with my experience at the museum. As far as museums go, I really haven’t seen a more immersive experience in the physical space. It definitely rivals the memories I have of a theme park recreating a storybook or movie experience.
If I did have to make one suggestion to the museum experience, it would be to include a layer of deeper interactivity. This could take on a form not only as a digital exhibitions in the museum but also as an online exhibit through their website. While there are several digital displays throughout the museum playing very interesting video, I found myself wanting to interact further. If paired together, this further discovery of Ford’s Theatre would act as a resource extension of the museum before, during, and after the experience.
All in all, this museum is highly recommended and a great example why we love researching our website niche. I’m just looking forward to returning to Ford’s Theatre in the near future to experience a performance and see another side to this cultural institution.