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Rediscovering Abraham Lincoln at the Huntington

February 1, 2009 |  8:00 pm

Autographed photo Abraham Lincoln is much with us these days — our new president reveres him and at times talks in his cadences. A raft of new books seeks to get at his mysterious power. And next week will be the 200th anniversary of his birth in a Kentucky cabin.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Huntington Library has assembled an unusual show of Lincoln memorabilia — objects that capture the man and the public’s long fascination with him.  Indeed, the show focuses on how fervent collectors helped shape the image of the 16th president.

“It’s not just the history of Lincoln, it’s also about the collectors,” said Olga Tsapina, the curator organizing the Lincoln exhibit titled “The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Collecting Abraham Lincoln” at the Huntington Library.  “Because the Huntington is a great repository of collections, we thought we’d do something different with our Lincoln show.”

Recently, Tsapina picked up some of the 50 items the exhibit will display to help tell different facts about Lincoln. Tsapina thumbed through documents, such as Lincoln’s notebook on slavery or a pass dispatching Lincoln’s bodyguard the night the president was assassinated. The public can also view  a copy of the 13th Amendment signed by Lincoln, an audio recording of an eyewitness at his assassination,  a plaster mold of Lincoln’s face and hands and pictures of Lincoln’s funeral.

When she held up a lock of Lincoln’s hair or a piece of rail he allegedly split, Tsapina explained why Lincoln sparked such interest among the public during his presidency and after his assassination in 1865.

“It was not necessarily a sign of the admiration of the man,” said Tsapina. She said factors such as his being a divisive president during a controversial war, his assassination and an increasing interest in gathering autographs from public figures fueled the enthusiasm.

For example,  library founder Henry Huntington bought a Lincoln biography in 1914 for $12,600. The  library’s Lincoln holdings rank third in volume behind those of the Library of Congress and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., according to Tsapina.

“If it wasn’t for this devotion, all of this stuff might’ve been lost,”  she said. “The story of Lincoln probably would’ve never been told properly.”

-- Mark Medina

Above: An autographed photo of Lincoln, presented to War Office employee W.H.H. Jones. Credit: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens