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  • The Period of Significance Is Now
  • Erin Carlson Mast, Morris J. Vogel, and Lisa Lopez

In Washington, D.C., at President Lincoln’s Cottage, students from all over the world gather during summer for a two-day summit to discuss slavery. But not slavery as it existed during Lincoln’s time, slavery as it exists today.

In Chicago at the Jane Addams Hull-House, museum visitors are asked to take part in actions that bring attention to prisoners in solitary confinement and demand that the human rights of prisoners be recognized by lawmakers.

In New York, attendees at a Tenement Talk sponsored by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum hear about current issues of economic inequality from journalist Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, a gripping book that gives voice to those who have been passed over by the wave of American affluence, and those most recently hit by the economic downturn.

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In the Can You Walk Away? exhibit at President Lincoln’s Cottage, disturbing stories that document modern-day slavery in America highlighted the ongoing relevance of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which he began formulating here.

photo courtesy howard + revis ©, courtesy president lincoln’s cottage

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What is happening here? These events may take place at historic house museums, but they embrace history as it is happening today. The period of significance for these sites is now—not 50 or 150 years ago.

Today, a number of historic house museums have realized that they have a role to play in addressing present-day concerns. They know that the stories they tell about “back then” are still relevant today, and that this history can form a basis for addressing and understanding social justice issues and current events. These museums are playing an innovative role in helping today’s visitors understand that challenges faced by people a century or two centuries ago are still relevant in today’s world.

We interviewed the directors of three sites to find out what is behind these new directions and programming. You will hear from Erin Carlson Mast, executive director of President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C.; Morris J. Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York; and Lisa Lopez, interim director at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago.

When you think about the phrase “the period of significance is now,” particularly in terms of the programmatic opportunities, how do you interpret this?


We think of this in two, very specific ways. First, the National Monument designation of President Lincoln’s Cottage highlighted the ideas President Lincoln dealt with here during the Civil War. Those ideas continue to evolve and be focal points in our world today. Second, we are situated in a landscape that has served the same purpose since before Lincoln’s time here, and we interpret this place as living and evolving. This site isn’t frozen in time; it’s part of an unbroken arc of history. Part of the landscape is a national cemetery that is the predecessor of Arlington National Cemetery, and, like Arlington, is still an active cemetery. It has a rolling period of significance, because each burial adds to its history. And the Armed Forces Retirement Home campus continues to serve as a home for retired and disabled veterans. We interpret the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking and the impact of his [End Page 44] ideas throughout time and in our world today, in a landscape that honors and respects its own history while embracing necessary change.

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At the Students Opposing Slavery summit held at President Lincoln’s Cottage last year, 35 students from six countries were mobilized to join the modern abolitionist movement.

photo courtesy of president lincoln’s cottage


History is a conversation that the present holds with the past in order to help chart its course for the future. That’s how I always introduced the discipline in my 30 years of teaching. Done with purpose, preservation, like history, is much more than a mere...


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