Gettysburg Will Shine at Smithsonian

Posted November 19, 2008 at 5:36pm

Tucked away on the first floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is an exhibit featuring three sheets of lined paper. It is such a simple display that it might be overshadowed by glitzier attractions.

But those lined sheets contain the 270 words that make up President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in presidential history.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell will recite those famous words Friday, when the museum reopens to the public after a two-year renovation project.

The speech is on loan from the White House, where it typically hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom that once served as the Kentucky-born president’s office. It is one of five original copies of the speech and the only one that was written, signed and titled by Lincoln.

The president delivered the Civil War speech in less than two minutes at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. For the next seven weeks, it will be fittingly displayed in a small document room just past an exhibit on the Civil Rights era.

“We wanted to create a space where you could really contemplate it,” exhibit curator Harry Rubenstein said of the display. “This document changed American history. It is the greatest speech by an American president.”

The Smithsonian exhibit kicks off a yearlong celebration marking the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Institutions citywide will be paying homage to the 16th president with exhibits, speeches and even themed happy hours.

The National Portrait Gallery will showcase photographs of the 16th president, and the American Association of Lincoln Presenters — a group at least 80 strong — will descend on the city in April for its annual convention.

Lincoln loyalists are expected to flock to the diverse attractions that will be a mainstay in museum culture all next year, but as the city prepares for the inauguration of yet another Illinois Senator, excitement is likely to swell.

Luckily, the Madison hotel is prepared for the influx of tourists with a promotional “Lincoln Bedroom” package that offers guests a copy of the Gettysburg Address and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” for $809 per night. The lesser-priced Fairmont hotel provides Lincoln Logs for children with its $209 per night “Honest Abe” package.

As supporters cheer President-elect Barack Obama’s January swearing-in ceremony, history buffs can experience Lincoln’s second inauguration at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where an exhibit features the invitation and menu of that 1865 event.

The National Museum of American History will offer two more exhibits in 2009 following the Gettysburg Address: one with artifacts from the Smithsonian archives and another with materials from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

Illinoisans preparing to bid farewell to another Senator-turned-president are relishing the heightened attention.

“His hometown is Springfield, so we’re really excited about it,” said Kay Smith, director of the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. “He lived here for over 30 years, so we have lots to offer.”