I went to Ford’s Theater last time that I was in DC. This was somewhere between fifteen to twenty years ago. When I went last time, it was pretty low tech. They had a very simple (just a couple of display cases, IIRC) in the basement and then you pretty much could wander around the theater. It was really eerie to me to stand near the front of the theater and look up at the box where Lincoln was assassinated. In my mind, it seems like such a huge event that the actual modest setting of the play house seemed incongruent. I was able to take the actual path that Booth took to get behind the box. I was literally able to stand in the exact spot that Booth stood when he shot Lincoln. It sent chills down my spine to imagine myself living in that moment. It was one of the highlights of that trip to DC.
Now, many years have passed. Since then, clearly Ford’s has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation and it definitely shows. The somewhat simple basement museum is now a state of the art examination of Lincoln’s election and term in office. It is definitely a professional quality exhibit, and the increased attendance shows it. Last time, I was able to wander around somewhat freely with very little interference from other patrons. Now, there are scheduled viewings with a couple of hundred people admitted at a time. The basement is thronged, with a crush of people struggling to get a selfie with Booth’s derringer.
The playhouse itself is now much more roped off. You can still view Lincoln’s box from the front part of the theater, but you are now no longer able to get as close to the box as I once did.
Last time I visited, I also went to the Petersen House. This is where they took Lincoln after he was shot and where ultimately he was declared dead. Again, it was eerie to stand and look into the room, imagining the scene with Lincoln’s prostrate body, Mary Lincoln inconsolable, and Edwin Stanton frantically trying to keep the Union together, catch Lincoln’s killer, and deal with his own grief.
This time, when I left Ford’s Theater, I looked over at the Petersen House and there was already fifty people standing in line waiting to enter. I didn’t bother.
The problem for me is that I already know about the Lincoln presidency. The basement exhibits, although professionally done, added nothing to my knowledge. The magic of Ford’s Theater isn’t the Lincoln presidency but the tragedy of the assassination and the echoes that it stirs in people when they come into close proximity to such a historically significant event.
I’m sure that this has resulted in much more revenue for Ford’s, and they are welcome to it. For me personally, the updates were a pretty serious disappointment.