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Lincoln exhibit gets local touch at Senator John Heinz History Center

| Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Abraham Lincoln arrived in Pittsburgh on a night that would seem to presage the stormy and gray days that were to surround his presidency.

It was the night before he gave his only speech here in which he vowed "to say nothing in opposition to the spirit of the Constitution."

That appearance of Feb. 15, 1861, is being used by the Senator John Heinz History Center as a local entry to a display that deals with Lincoln and the tests he faced in his presidency.

"Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War," an exhibit put together by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, opens Saturday at the history center. The exhibit, explains Emily Ruby, assistant curator at the Strip District museum, looks at the manner in which Lincoln dealt with three major issues: slavery, secession and civil liberties.

But while it deals largely with abstractions, she points out that the exhibit enlivens the topics with a fast-paced video about America on the brink of war and a presentation of Lincoln's first inaugural address.

There also are interactive boards on the 1864 election and Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, which prohibits imprisonment without a crime.

Andrew Masich, CEO and president of the center, says exhibitors at the site are trying to add a local examination of that story by dealing with Lincoln's one stop here as well as taking a look at Lincoln, the man.

Part of that will be a re-creation of the room he stayed in at the Monongahela House, Downtown, as well as a display of the actual bed in the room. That will serve as an entrance to the bigger display, he explains, while the exit will deal with Lincoln, his family and his shrewd sense of humor.

"He had a great political savvy and a humor that could make you feel comfortable while he was closing the deal," he says of Lincoln's approach to discussions. "It would be done, and you wouldn't even know you'd been had."

The locally assembled display, which is casually being called "Lincoln Slept Here," includes a life mask on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, presidential campaign buttons, his writing and ink stand and a tassel from the president's funeral bier.

The main exhibit deals with how the 16th president handled issues that were surrounded by his dedication to the Constitution. Anne Maderasz, curator of the museum department at the center, points at how the two displays play off each other.

"Here is a man who is known as a witty raconteur, but he also had strict thoughts about law and the Constitution," she says.

That philosophy, Ruby adds, challenged him as he tried to handle issues surrounding and created by the Civil War.

The display has a rather pro-Lincoln slant, Ruby admits, but it takes a more critical look when it deals with his abridgement of civil liberties.

Maderasz says it adds a more in-depth look at a "man who has become an iconic figure." That helps to complete what Masich calls a look at "Lincoln up-close and personal."

Additional Information:

'Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War'

When: Opens Saturday and runs until Jan. 3 during history center hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day

Admission: $10; $9 for age 62 and older; $5 for students and ages 4-17; free for members and age 3 and younger

Where: Senator John Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District

Details: 412-454-6000

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