Writing in Slate, which I linked to yesterday, Andrew Ferguson recalled talking to Bob Rogers, head of BRC Imagination Arts, the firm that designed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, about one of the exhibits in the pre-presidential wing of the museum. One that I liked, in fact. Reading this, I like it even more.
"The museum is heavily weighted toward depictions of Lincoln's family -- on the assumption that this will be appealing to families of tourists," Ferguson asserted. "That's why they devoted an exhibit room to the Lincoln boys raising hell in their father's law office.
" 'We got the scene from [Lincoln's biographer and law partner William] Herndon, and we're true to his account — up to a point,' Bob said. 'What Herndon really says is, when he walked in the office once, he caught one of the boys pissing on the hot stove in the middle of the room. So I asked the people in Springfield, "Hey, can we do this? It's true to history!" I begged 'em. I said, "We can do it tastefully. We'll have the kid's back to the visitor, we get recirculating water going so you see the piss spraying out, we use colored water, we get a fogger so we see the steam rising from the hot stove, you hear the sssssss, we get an aromascape so you can smell it." Jesus! How great would that be!' "
As you might think, the museum did not depict one of the Lincoln boys pissing on a hot stove, as funny and contrary to our notions of the 19th century as that might have been. Or how universal to it is for boys, for that matter. I have vague recollections of my mother saying that certain lads made the radiator hiss when my family lived in a place that had them in the early 1960s. Anyway, the decision not to portray that little-known moment in Lincoln history is probably a wise one, since people tend to fixate on things like that to the exclusion of everything else: "Guess what we saw at the Lincoln Museum!"
Instead, the boys are in the office, arranged as if one were about to throw something at the other, who was swinging a broom in his hands. One of them, a small Tad Lincoln I think, is standing on a large table. Their father is lying on a nearby couch, reading a newspaper and ignoring their shenanigans.
But I didn't like it so much because of the boys. They could have been elsewhere. What I liked was the extreme clutter of the Lincoln-Herndon law office, as depicted by the museum. Papers, some loose and some tied in bundles, are everywhere -- on the table, on the floor, jammed into a desk, stuffed in the pockets of Lincoln's coat. Books and newspapers are piled here and there, and scattered around are quill pens and ink wells and other mid-19th-century office equipment.
I believed it instantly, more than the bland depiction of things at the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historic Site, which I visited in 1997. There's too much tidiness there (see this good collection of pictures). Lincoln had better things to do than spend his time organizing things. Namely, read. On the couch. Herndon said in his biography: "When he reached the office, about nine o'clock in the morning, the first thing he did was to pick up a newspaper, spread himself out on an old sofa, one leg on a chair, and read aloud, much to my discomfort. Singularly enough Lincoln never read any other way but aloud."