The Lincoln Heritage Museum of the past offered visitors a
singular type of experience, with many rare Abraham Lincoln and 19th-century pieces exhibited in tabletop display cases. While our
museum has for years collected, maintained and exhibited one of the
greatest collections of Lincolniana that exists in any public or
private collection, these items deserved to be displayed in a way
that provides greater historical context so the public might truly
appreciate the significance of each piece.
The museum has now achieved that. The new museum, on its first-floor
level, continues the tradition of spotlighting original artifacts,
but in a way that interprets history and gives deeper meaning to
these 19th-century artifacts.
The mission and vision of the Lincoln Heritage Museum is to
interpret for visitors the life and legacy of Abraham
Lincoln. Similar to the mission of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage
Coalition, the Lincoln Heritage Museum interprets —
or rather, tells
personal stories about —
Lincoln's life and those with whom he came
into contact. The artifacts displayed in the museum have been used
by people, and each item has a story to tell. Collectively, they
give visitors a greater perspective on 19th-century life and
the world in which Abraham Lincoln lived.
Though history rightly gives Lincoln credit for his crucial roles in
saving the Union and freeing slaves, it is the character qualities
he developed that make his life worth emulating. As character
education continues to be a major component in schools, the new
Lincoln Heritage Museum emphasizes those key character qualities
associated with Lincoln's life. Perseverance, intellect, vision,
leadership, honesty and empathy are character traits focused upon
throughout the museum. Over 100 unique pieces are displayed in the
museum, and most are in some way directly associated with one of
these character qualities.
One characteristic often associated with Lincoln is intellect.
Though he had less than a year of formal schooling, Lincoln
demonstrated a lifelong commitment to learning. He borrowed all the
books he could find, and as a young man he received tutelage from
Among those Lincoln gravitated toward while
living in New Salem was schoolteacher Mentor Graham. At a table in
Graham's home, the two sat while Graham exposed Lincoln to the finer
points of mathematics, which would enable Lincoln to eventually
embark upon a surveying career.
At that table, Lincoln also received education in grammar, which would
result in his powerful use of language in his speeches and
writings. Lincoln read about some of the great thinkers of history,
propelling him to adopt some of their ideas and formulate his
own philosophy on government, law and humanity. In many ways,
Lincoln got his start at that table, which is on exhibit in the
Lincoln Heritage Museum.
[to top of second column]
We introduce Mentor Graham and the importance of that table
to Lincoln, and it is featured in a case titled "Intellect." A
table is just a table, but the stories and character trait
breathe new life into the table as a significant historical
object. Similar objects, such as a book showing a description of
Lincoln's patent and one of his law books, also illustrate
Another trait highlighted in the museum is Lincoln's vision. In
his first known political campaign speech, in 1832, Lincoln
offered his political platform —
which was quite visionary in
scope for what was then a sparsely inhabited frontier region.
Included in Lincoln's vision for his state and for the country
was a call for internal improvements like building roads and
making rivers navigable, which would help ordinary pioneer
farmers and merchants increase their commercial interests and
While Lincoln served as a member of the Illinois Legislature, representing central Illinois, he proudly rang the
bell for internal improvements. In 1839, as a member of the
Committee on Finance, Lincoln advanced the Whig Party philosophy
of the government's obligation to provide internal improvements.
He gave to the state General Assembly a report proposing that
the federal government purchase unused lands in Illinois to
develop them for the purpose of building up the infrastructure,
and thus put Illinois on a commercial footing comparable
with the East. The museum displays that report. By itself,
this document is one of many such legislative committee reports;
but placed in context, it becomes apparent that Lincoln was
advancing a method by which the state and nation could further
progress, and it demonstrates his philosophy and his vision.
Items such as these are now housed in conservation-friendly
cases built specifically for the museum. These cases contain
display areas with interchangeable acrylic graphics, are
environmentally sealed and have museum-appropriate lighting.
They display the museum's valuable artifacts in a way that
interprets history and deepens the meaning of the past, all of
which serve to further the appreciation for the life and legacy
of Abraham Lincoln.
[By RON KELLER, museum director,
Lincoln Heritage Museum]