Center for Education and Leadership

The Center for Education and Leadership is located across the street from Ford’s Theater, where President Lincoln was shot, and next to the Petersen House, where Lincoln died. The Center opened in 2010 and is the newest addition to the developing campus of structures commemorating the site of memory where Lincoln was assassinated. [1] The addition of the Center for Education and Leadership transforms the focus of the site of Lincoln’s assassination from tragedy and death to Lincoln’s legacy and how future generations can emulate his leadership.

The building that houses the Center was previously a 10-story office building in D.C.’s historic district, but Martinez and Johnson Architecture remodeled the space to be used in a dynamic way. [2] After visitors tour exhibits focusing on Lincoln’s death at the Petersen House, they are funneled into the fourth floor of the Center, where exhibits move beyond Lincoln’s death and into his lasting legacy. [3][4]

Richard Norton Smith, a Lincoln historian who helped design the new center, explains the biggest change with the addition of the Center:

“People used to be exposed to a fairly narrow slice of history, with a clear-cut ending. Now the whole package is not about endings. It literally is a story that is unfinished, and in some ways in reinterpreted by each generation.” [4]

Outside of the Center for Education and Leadership with the Petersen House adjacent

This picture shows the Center for Education and Leadership with a two-story portrait of Lincoln facing the street, and the historical Petersen House to the right. The difference in age between the two buildings illustrates the difference in the information taught within them. Photo from: Martinez & Johnson Architecture.

A Journey through History

Ford’s Theatre, the Petersen House, and The Center for Education and Leadership act as a theater of memory. The layout of the campus encourages visitors to embark on a transformative journey. After walking through the house where Lincoln died, visitors are directed into the Center, starting with the fourth floor Aftermath Gallery that provides information about the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. Visitors then move down to the Legacy Gallery that explains Lincoln’s evolving legacy, and finally to the Leadership Gallery which hosts special exhibits. [1] To learn more about the three galleries, visit Ford’s website.

In designing the Center, Director Paul Tetreault wanted to bring Lincoln’s story to life by making the history accessible. [3] It features exhibits that visitors can walk into and touch-screen displays to “go with the artifacts under the glass.” [4] Getting visitors to interact with the exhibits allows them to make meaningful connections and form their own memories of Lincoln and his legacy.

Visitors peering in a replica of the barn where Booth was found

A mother and her twin daughters peer into the Center’s replica of the barn where Booth was found. Photo by Linda Davis for the Washington Post.

Visitor exploring replica of LIncoln's funeral car

A boy steps out of the Center’s replica of the funeral car that carried Lincoln’s body across the country. Photos by Linda Davis for the Washington Post.

Additionally, the Center houses two floors of high-tech education studios for school programs and teacher workshops. [1] The Center’s Distance Learning Lab takes students on an interactive, virtual investigation with Detective James McDevitt as he visits the site of Lincoln’s assassination and examines clues. The experience lasts 60 minutes and costs $125 for a classroom. Schools from across the country have engaged in this interactive form of learning about Lincoln’s assassination. [5]

The Center for Education and Leadership is partnered with the National Parks Service, and is funded by both tax dollars and private donations. [1]

Lincoln Gallery

The modern architecture is representative of the museum’s purpose to focus on Lincoln’s legacy and impacts today. Photo from: Martinez & Johnson Architecture.

Lincoln Book Tower

The Center features a winding staircase and 34-foot tower of books written about Lincoln. [6] There have been more words written about Abraham Lincoln than any other historical figure, with the exception of Jesus Christ. [7] Paul Tetreault, the Director of Ford’s Theatre, explains how the statue attempts to visualize that fact:

“When you actually look up and continue to look up for three-and-a-half stories and see a pile of books, it makes a real statement to anyone that, you know, this is an important guy and there was a whole lot written about him, and there continues to be a whole lot written about him.” [8]

34-foot tower of books about Lincoln

This photo shows the Lincoln Book Tower as a visitor would seeing it looking up from the ground floor. The seemingly endless tower of books visualizes the vast amount of scholarship devoted to Lincoln. Photo from: Martinez & Johnson Architecture.

The statue features only 6,800 books, and 205 unique titles that repeat going up; this is just a fragment of the over 15,000 books published about Lincoln. [6] When choosing the titles to include, the designers participated in a selective memory process, and when closely examined, the books focus on the idea of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” rather than the many other representations of Lincoln.

The Center overlooks much of the controversy surrounding memory of Lincoln, particularly in relation to racism, slavery, and the Civil War. The exhibits focus on Lincoln’s best qualities and present these in an educational way to school children and casual visitors. While there is much to be learned from Lincoln, the Center could benefit from presenting a more complex and complete image of Lincoln.

Lincoln’s Legacy as a Leader

Lincoln scholar Richard Norton Smith, who helped plan the Center, explains that they intended to leave behind Lincoln’s death and study his “historical afterlife”, particularly his influence on other leaders. Theodore Roosevelt kept Lincoln’s portrait behind his desk in the Oval Office, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Lincoln Memorial every year on February 12, and presidents from all political ideologies, including Bush and Obama, have studied Lincoln’s leadership. [3]

From June 2014 to January 2015, the Leadership Gallery featured “Lincoln and Leadership” which taught qualities of good leadership through the lens of Lincoln, and why he has remained a relevant figure 150 years after his death. Additionally, it challenged visitors to consider how they might use the principles of Lincoln’s leadership in their own lives. The exhibit highlighted 5 leadership principles: integrity, equality, creativity, empathy, and courage, and encouraged visitors to submitted their own thoughts on these principles. Selected visitors’ thoughts are now displayed on the exhibit web page. This modern reflection on Lincoln’s leadership illustrates the living memory of Lincoln and how individuals can use it in their own lives. [9]

This exhibit, and many others at the Center, shows that Lincoln’s relevance has not dimmed; his legacy as a great and virtuous man has been incorporated into the official narrative of US History. The recent addition of the Center to public memory of Lincoln illustrates how much more we can learn from LIncoln moving forward. As a politician, Lincoln realized “that role’s fullest moral possibilities”.  He exemplified “‘responsible realism’ — a combination of moral clarity and prudent responsibility”, which marks Lincoln as a great political leader. [7] We are at a point in our history where politicians are not trusted. Lincoln’s legacy is particularly usable now for restoring trust in career politicians and belief that moral action can coincide with practical leadership.

Far from dark tourism, this site of assassination has become a place for contemplation, education, and forward progress. With the addition of the Center for Education and Leadership, this developing campus of historical memory has revived memory of Lincoln in a way that we all can learn from.


Works Consulted

[1] “Center for Education and Leadership.Ford’s Theater Society. Web. 5 April 2015.

[2] “Ford’s Theater Society Center for Education and Leadership.Martinez & Johnson Architecture. Ascribe. Web. 5 April 2015.

[3] Zongker, Brett. “Ford’s Theatre opens center to study Lincoln in DC.Associated Press Archive, 8 Feb 2012.  America’s News. Web. 13 April 2015.

[4] Pressley, Nelson. “Ford’s Theater to open new education center.” The Winchester Star, 4 Feb 2012. America’s News. Web. 14 April 2015.

[5] “Distance Learning.Ford’s Theater Society. Web. 5 April 2015.

[6] “Lincoln Book Tower.Ford’s Theater Society. Web. 5 April 2015.

[7] Foner, Eric. “The Education of Abraham Lincoln.” New York Times, 10 Feb 2002. Web. 13 April 2015.

[8] Montagne, Renee. “Forget Lincoln Logs: A Tower of Books to Honor Abe.” NPR Morning Edition, 20 Feb 2012. Web. 15 April 2015.

[9] “Lincoln and Leadership Exhibit.Ford’s Theater Society. Web. 5 April 2015.

[10] “Our Partnership with the National Park Service.Ford’s Theater Society. Web. 5 April 2015.

[11] Foote, Kenneth. Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press: Austin, 2003. Pages 47-58. Print.

[12] Hornick, Ed. “For Obama, Lincoln was model president.” CNN, 18 Jan 2009. Web. 13 April 2015.

[13] “Lincoln’s murder 150 years ago is commemorated at Ford’s Theatre April 14-15.” Washington Examiner, 12 April 2015. America’s News. Web. 15 April 2015.

[14] Zongker, Brett. “Obama honors Lincoln’s legacy at ‘hallowed space’.Associated Press Archive, 12 Feb 2009. America’s News. Web. 13 April 2015.