Slater Museum showcases Lincoln-related exhibitions

Collection of the Slater Memorial Museum

The Slater Memorial Museum is delving into the Civil War era with multiple new exhibitions.

The primary show is "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War," a touring work from the American Library Association Public Programs Office, in collaboration with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

In addition, the Slater will host "From Slavery to Freedom," which was originally assembled by the New London County Historical Society.

And the museum will highlight some items from its own permanent collections that complement the exhibitions - meaning objects that are related to Abraham Lincoln and Norwich's role in the Civil War.

"So it's three things in one," says Slater director Vivian Zoe.

"Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War" zeroes in on all the political and constitutional issues the president faced during the Civil War. In particular, it explores a trio of questions that were driving events at the time. As the Slater breaks it down, the questions were: "Was the United States truly one nation, or was it a confederacy of sovereign and separate states? How could a country founded on the belief that 'all men are created equal' tolerate slavery? In a national crisis, would civil liberties be secure?"

The exhibition describes the political and social environment of the times, leading visitors through the thought process that Lincoln himself had to follow, according to Zoe.

"A lot of what Lincoln was contemplating, we still contemplate today," Zoe says. "For example, state's rights and questions that Lincoln was addressing included, did the Constitution give the federal government the power to end slavery in the states? Does this sound familiar? Not with slavery and something so grave as slavery, but with, for example, health care today. Does the federal government have the right to mandate universal health care? We grapple with these issues still today."

Part of the reason the Slater turned this into a three-part show is that, for the travelling exhibition "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War," the recommended space was 1,000 square feet. The Slater's Converse Gallery is 3,600 square feet.

The Slater didn't want to float a relatively small exhibition in such a large space, Zoe says. Even beyond that, the museum has wonderful objects in its storage and knew of other venues - the Leffingwell House and the Rockwell House, for instance - that also had material that would complement the primary Lincoln exhibition. Those pieces had the added benefit of helping to make the historical perspective more specific to Norwich.

Norwich City Historian Dale Plummer alerted Zoe to the fact that the "From Slavery to Freedom" exhibition, which was created about a decade ago, was stored in the New London High School basement. (Plummer had worked as a researcher and writer on the project.) The Slater is recollecting some items, too, from the New London County Historical Society and Mystic Seaport and reincorporating them into the exhibition.

Among the other objects on view are several from Norwich native and Brigadier General Henry Birge. The show features an image of Birge from a book published shortly after the Civil War called "The Annals of Norwich During the Great Rebellion."

As Zoe was doing research on Birge, she discovered a 1961 newspaper article saying that his descendants had donated his presentation sword, dueling pistols and spurs to the Leffingwell House Museum. She contacted people there, and they were happy to loan those items.

On view, too, are some carte de visites - little calling cards featuring a picture - of Birge and an unidentified Civil War soldier.

The Slater also showcases many objects depicting Lincoln. Some, Zoe says, are from publishing companies like Currier and Ives and engraving houses.

"Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War," Converse Gallery, Slater Memorial Museum, 305 Broadway, Norwich; runs through Nov. 30; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Fri. and 1-4 p.m. Sat. and Sun.; $3 adults, $2 seniors and students, free for kids under 12; (860) 425-5563, slatermuseum.org.

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