Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War

This past week I made an extremely brief, 24-hour stop in Gettysburg. While there, I managed to stop by Musselman Library on the Gettysburg College campus, to see Lincoln: The Constitution, and the Civil War. I apparently made it just in time, as the exhibit closes soon.

As the introductory panel indicates, the exhibition explores Lincoln's relationship with the Constitution in three areas: his policies toward secession, slavery, and civil liberties. The first panel asks the visitor to consider three questions: (1) Was the "United States" truly one, or was it a confederacy of sovereign and separate states; (2) How could a country founded on the belief "that all men are created equal" tolerate slavery; and (3) In a national crisis, would civil liberties be secure.

The first version of this exhibit was the Constitution Center's first originally produced feature exhibit back in 2005. In collaboration with the American Library Association, the Constitution Center later developed a traveling panel show of the exhibit, which has traveled to libraries around the country since 2009. Gettysburg College's library, fittingly, is one of its last stops.

While I am usually most interested in viewing exhibits to see unique artifacts, I found that this panel show laid out its themes very clearly and in a concise manner. It was also visually appealing - the designer did a great job of choosing compelling images to draw visitors in. Finally, I enjoyed the way the exhibit encourages us to consider difficult questions. For example - in the section on civil liberties, a panel draws intriguing connections between issues Lincoln grappled with and modern-day hot button topics:
How far could a president stretch his war powers without violating the Constitution?
What were the appropriate limits of dissent in wartime

Lincoln wrestled with those issues then; we still debate them today.
The exhibit concludes by looking at Lincoln's legacy. It utilizes the powerful words of the Gettysburg address to show how Lincoln left the nation a set of ideals relating to equality, democracy, and freedom, and it asks viewers to consider whether the nation has been faithful to that legacy.

While the panel exhibit by definition lacked artifacts. The library did a great job of adding complimentary artifact displays on its own. Alongside this traveling exhibit on the first floor of Musselman Library, viewers could view a bronze bust of Lincoln's head sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, and an exhibit of Civil War period sheet music from the library's special collections archive. There was even a rather interesting exhibit of Lincoln-themed bookends on loan to the library from a private collector. In all, it was certainly worth a side trip.

As an aside: in doing a bit of research I came across an educational game that the Constitution Center designed for students to go along with the exhibition. The game puts students in Lincoln's shoes and asks them to consider his most difficult problems and make their own choices. You can find that game here.

No comments:

Post a Comment