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Lincoln’s legacy inspires new center at Ford’s Theatre.

At a glance, the 30-foot tower of Lincoln books in Ford’s Theatre’s Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C., seems to include every title ever written about the president—a number believed to exceed 15,000. In actuality, the tower includes some 6,800 books representing 205 individual titles. It is a powerful visual testament to our need to study and understand Lincoln’s legacy, the mission of the new center.

Located in a 10-story building directly across 10th Street, N.W., from Ford’s Theatre, the Center for Education and Leadership features both permanent and rotating exhibits about the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the president’s enduring influence since. The center also has lecture halls and classrooms designed for teacher training and school groups.

One exhibit examines “Lincoln and the Presidency,” revealing how presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to Barack Obama have been guided by Lincoln’s leadership and words. Another examines the monumentalization of Lincoln, including lesser-known statues and the iconic Daniel Chester French version on the National Mall. All this is counterpointed by a display case showing the pop-culture Lincoln emblazoned on toys, comic books and even shoes.

The museum is not heavy on artifacts, but items are well-chosen and interesting, such as a set of keys taken from assassin John Wilkes Booth after he was killed at Garrett Place on April 26, 1865. Officials say the emphasis was intentional. “Most museums are about things,” said Ford’s Theatre Society Chairman Wayne Reynolds at the center’s opening. “This one is about ideas.”

Several panels in the “Leadership Gallery” allow visitors to write and post sticky-note messages that relate to various leadership qualities, such as courage, integrity and ideals of equality. This low-tech interactivity is balanced by several touch-screen displays.

To move through the museum, visitors can ascend a spiral staircase that winds around the tower of Lincoln books (which are actually fire-proof aluminum reproductions). The diverse titles—ranging from histories and biographies to children’s books and even travel guides—are worth perusing, whether on the tower itself, in the center’s first-floor gift shop or, of course, in your favorite library and bookstore.

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Originally published in the July 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.