I have been volunteering at the Henry Ford Museum for nearly three years. Most weeks I get up early and aim to be on the road by 6 to make the trek to Dearborn to work with Fran, the museum’s textile conservator. Each time I go I learn new things and feel extremely privileged to be doing the things I do. Mostly I do “grunt” work, but Fran goes out of her way to make things interesting for me. This week, it turns out, she went above and beyond in making it interesting. When I arrived, she said we had to go help move the chair that President Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated from it’s climate controlled display case to open viewing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death, on April 15, 1865. The chair was acquired from a public auction in the 1920s by a dealer who then sold it to Henry Ford. It is considered one of the most significant pieces that the museum owns. This is the first time it has ever been on view out of a case at the Museum (or at the Village where it lived for many years in the courthouse). So, this was a pretty cool thing to take part in.
When we arrived, the case was empty and the chair had been lifted out and was sitting on the floor. It was then transferred to a cart for transport to the platform where it would spend the day. As this very old chair was sitting on the floor and rocking just a little, it was easy to get sucked into history, to imagine Lincoln sitting in the chair enjoying the play at the Ford Theater, then to take the leap to think of what a difference he made as a president. I felt a little chill pass through me. THIS is history. You don’t get that feeling looking at a picture in a book or on the Internet. Standing just inches away, I could FEEL history.
Then, my practical side took over. I loved seeing the chair really close up to enjoy the woodwork, the details, the shredded silk. To see how well the conservator (in the 1990s) had done the work to slow the degradation of the fabric. The entire fabric portion of the chair is covered with custom-dyed polyester fabric that is so thin you can barely tell it is there. Practically invisible stitches hold it to the seat, arms and back of the chair. Under the polyester, the conservator had straightened the silk so well that it appears the chair is in much better shape than it is. Mere threads appear like cohesive fabric when viewed even from a short distance. Silk is a notoriously pesky fabric for conservators to manage. It really doesn’t like light and foreign materials (like the hair tonic, blood and water that have damaged this chair).
In this picture (right), the exhibit guys are lifting the rocker from the trolley to the display platform. Notice that they are not wearing gloves. Wearing white cotton gloves is so 1980s! Current conservatory wisdom says that wood surfaces may be touched by human hands because it allows safer movement of precious artifacts. The oils and salts from human skin are really only coming into contact with the wood finish (wax) and it can be easily wiped and their traces removed with no damage to the artifact. I could see these guys “sweating” just a bit when they were moving the chair!
The chair is normally viewed from above, as the display case has a somewhat low base. On the open-air platform, the chair was be viewed from below. So, a dark paper covering was added to conceal the underside that isn’t intended for public viewing so that it wouldn’t detract from the viewing experience. That’s Fran and an exhibit guy working on the chair.
The work was done in plenty of time for the 9:30 museum opening and the moving crew had a chance to sit back and simply “be” with the chair. This was as quiet as it got in the museum for the rest of the day!
I thought it was really, really cool that reenactors guarded the chair for the entire time of the exhibit. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for them! However, they were there for looks only. Also on hand was a bevy of uniformed Dearborn police officers and museum security guards. You could tell they felt the special-ness, too.
It was a big deal. A LOT of people came. This image is of the crowd listening to a panel discussion about the chair and the assassination put on by museum staff (they did an AWESOME job!). I have never seen the museum that full of people. I’m thrilled that I was able to be there. Now, I need to read more about Lincoln as this experience certainly whet my appetite to learn more.