Eileen Mackevich and David Blanchette are the executive and deputy directors, respectively, of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum complex in Springfield, Ill. They oversee 75 staffers at both institutions, which welcome around 300,000 visitors a year. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization, supports both facilities. Mackevich and Blanchette are working to curate and safeguard a priceless collection, one that serves the needs of buffs and serious scholars alike. “Old Abe” would surely approve of that democratic mission.
Where did the museum’s collection come from?
EM: In 1889 the Illinois State Historical Library was established to house historic materials, and it had an impressive collection of Lincoln material by the time it was renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Governor Henry Horner, who served that state from 1933 to 1940, was a Lincoln collector. His collection and other major collections of Lincolnalia from the Illinois State Historical Society were also donated to the library. The Lincoln Presidential Museum displays the items from the library’s collection.
Do you still acquire items?
EM: About four years ago the trustees authorized the purchase of items from Lincoln collector Louise Taper, who lives out in California. It included one of Lincoln’s top hats and Tad Lincoln’s small toy cannon, among other treasures.
DB: Taper’s collection was the largest Lincoln collection in private hands, and it supplemented our 52,000-item Abraham Lincoln collection, which was already one of the world’s largest. And that supplements our 12 million-item collection for the entire library, which includes a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln wrote for Edward Everett.
What artifacts are your favorites?
EM: We probably have the largest collection of Mary Lincoln letters there is, and we also have letters by the children, one stained with chocolate from Willie Lincoln’s fingers.
DB: My favorite is a brief note Abraham Lincoln wrote to General George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. McClellan wouldn’t follow up and pursue the Confederates. Lincoln kept urging him on. One of McClellan’s excuses was that his horses were sore-tongued and fatigued, and Lincoln wrote him saying, “What have your horses done since Antietam that fatigued anything?”
How do you feel about Mary Todd Lincoln?
EM: Mary did suffer from depression, but she was also a consummate politician who knew how to count votes just as well as her husband. Mary was extraordinary, a bright woman probably born in the wrong century. Had she been born in the 21st century, she could have made it in corporate America. She made Abraham Lincoln, in the sense he was a poor boy who wanted to climb the greasy pole of success and her money helped give him a leg up. Sally Field, by the way, did a great job of portraying her in the movie Lincoln.
DB: I agree. That’s a good assessment of a woman who has probably been more misunderstood than any other woman in American history.
Do you rotate the exhibits to display “fresh” items?
DB: The Illinois Gallery is dedicated to temporary exhibits. “To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War” is our most recent. It’s very graphic and informative, and was developed almost entirely in-house. We like to update the items in that gallery every year or so. These types of exhibits can’t be seen anywhere else.
EM: The museum is a ticketed institution, but the library is free and available for anyone to enter. We also place a new exhibit in there once a year. Currently it is “Boys in Blue,” which primarily tells the story of Illinois soldiers and their experiences during the war. We hope “To Kill and to Heal” will encourage veterans to come and visit. We want to discuss and respect the role of veterans, what kind of rights they have when they have been injured, and what benefits have been provided for widows. It relates to current times as well.
How did you come to work in Springfield?
EM: I had been working in Washington, D.C., as head of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and Foundation. And some people asked me, “Wouldn’t you like being closer to home, Chicago?” So I became the president and co-founder of the Chicago Humanities Festival. After that, coming to Springfield was ideal. December 3 [was] my two-year anniversary. I hope to be here for the library’s 125th anniversary and the 200th anniversary of the state. I love the museum and the library, and I also really appreciate the fact that it is a changing position every day.
DB: I’ve been here since 1989, when the institution was just an idea. I became a deputy director last May, but I was the communications manager up until then. Following eight years in journalism, I was ready to make a career change. I landed a job with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, our parent organization. Which meant I got in on the ground floor of what was then just an idea in a few key people’s minds. Then I got the opportunity to be the Pied Piper, to convince the public that we should spend millions of dollars honoring somebody whose life everyone thinks they knew all about— but soon realize that they really didn’t.
How do you keep all these priceless artifacts safe?
EM: First and most important, we are a new institution, and we are working with advice from a variety of major established institutions to develop an accreditation plan that will enable us to work with benchmark institutions like the Field Museum, the Chicago History Museum and also the Mexican National Museum. One of the areas of accreditation concerns providing the emergency plan and the disaster plan. We have a great deal in place in terms of fire protection and maintenance of documents and collections. What we don’t have is a fully fleshed-out plan, and we are working on that with advice from others. So within a matter of months we will have a disaster plan approved by our board; and in a matter of a year or year and a half, we expect to be a fully accredited institution.
DB: The whole facility was designed to withstand most of the disasters that you can imagine. It is not only earthquake-proof, but built to double the standard of what earthquake preparedness would be. It’s got the latest fire suppression and 24-hour security. We have a careful inventory and indexing and curatorial system that keeps track of not only where items are, but the conditions they are displayed in. The entire facility was designed for the protection of the documents, the people who work with them and the people who view them.
What is the best part of your job?
EM: I’m not a Lincoln scholar, I’m a 20th-century British historian. It took a long time for me to make that jump. I find Lincoln a source of constant inspiration. The staff in the museum as well as on the library side inspire me. They are truly dedicated to their task, and they take on more than their job assignments. When I look at what the library collections are, I can see what has transpired in Illinois since its statehood.
DB: All the people who visit, whether they come from newly democratized nations or they’re American citizens, give me inspiration. You get to hear about their stories and what Abraham Lincoln means to them. The stories of visitors who are brand-new U.S. citizens are especially moving, particularly when they talk about what this country means to them and why they hold Lincoln as a beacon of freedom and equality—and they remind us how lucky we are to be able to work here.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.