Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Ways We Learn - Lincoln Edition

(Should have been posted February 19, 2009)

Recently, one of my favorite blogs, Curious Expeditions, posted about the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. This museum recently mounted an exhibit that contains various objects associated with Lincon's assassination. As they point out, "Between the reopening of Ford Theater, constant comparisons, and the 200th anniversary of his birth, the nation’s spotlight is fully fixated on the United States 16th President, one Abraham Lincoln."

I think what interested me most about this piece were the unusual Lincoln artifacts that are newly on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine:
the bullet that killed the president, casts of his face and hands, fragments of his skull jiggled loose during the autopsy, a lock of hair removed from the wound, the probe used to locate the bullet, and a shirt cuff stained with Lincoln’s blood.
This fascination with different types of artifacts associated with famous people is certainly not unique to the twentieth century. Many of these objects had to have been saved by the doctors who handled Lincoln both before and after his death.

So what did they give us? What do we gain from seeing a piece of the skull that housed that remarkable brain? Or the bullet which sat in John Wilkes Booth's gun for days before ending the life of our sixteenth president? They're certainly not the usual artifacts we might see in a museum exhibit - no dignified presidential papers or stately Mt. Vernon or Monticello furniture here.

Maybe that's good. To a 16-year old with an interest in the macabre or medicine, this type of artifact might have a much greater appeal than all the military metals and framed law degrees in the world. And who are we to discount that appeal? Curators and exhibit designers, obviously, but perhaps we should keep our minds open to the different ways that people learn. In that world, a Lincoln "death artifacts" exhibit at a museum of medicine makes perfect sense.

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