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Huntington to Present a Show Worthy of Lincoln : Exhibit: 'The Last Best Hope of Earth' will be the largest assembly of his material ever mounted and the biggest show ever for the library.

June 25, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Move over, Gutenberg, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Abraham Lincoln is coming to San Marino.

Preparing for a unprecedented event, the Huntington Library plans to move its greatest hits--including a Gutenberg Bible, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Shakespeare's "First Folio"--out of the main exhibition hall to accommodate a landmark presentation on the life and achievements of the United States' 16th President.

"The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America," scheduled for Oct. 12 through Aug. 30, 1994, will comprise about 175 original letters, documents and artifacts along with supplementary material. It will be the largest assembly of original Lincoln material ever mounted and the biggest show ever presented at the Huntington.

Among the rarities to be displayed are Lincoln's handwritten manuscript of the Gettysburg Address, a signed souvenir copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a flag flown over the White House during the Civil War and a pardon to a soldier, handwritten on a bandage. Personal memorabilia include Lincoln's marriage license, one of his stovepipe hats and a pair of white gloves that he wore to Ford's Theatre on the night he was shot.

The sweeping exhibition draws its title from Lincoln's 1862 annual message to Congress, in which he declared that the Union must be preserved to maintain "the last best hope of Earth" for "man's vast future."

"What we are trying to show is the promise of America, a promise that Lincoln as a self-made man strongly believed in," said Huntington archivist John Rhodehamel, who organized the exhibition with Thomas F. Schwartz, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield. "We want to show that Lincoln believed slavery was a contradiction to the American promise and that the breakup of the Union would end that promise."

Working in consultation with James D. McPherson, professor of history at Princeton University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Battle Cry of Freedom," the two curators selected objects from the collections of the Huntington, the Illinois State Historical Library and Barry and Louise Taper of Beverly Hills. Barry Taper, an investor-developer, is a son of Los Angeles philanthropist Mark Taper. The couple, who are founders of the Music Center of Los Angeles, have built the world's most extensive private collection of original Lincoln manuscripts and memorabilia.

"The three collections complement each other," Rhodehamel said. The Huntington, which claims the West Coast's most important cache of original Lincoln material, concentrates on manuscripts, while the Taper collection includes many artifacts, he said. Illinois' collection of autographed Lincoln manuscripts, which is second only to that of the federal government, is the core of a vast holding that includes pamphlets, photographs, oil paintings and sculptures of the Lincoln family.

"The Last Best Hope of Earth" will fill the library's entire main exhibition hall, Rhodehamel said. The show will be arranged chronologically in eight sections, beginning with Lincoln's pre-political years and ending with his assassination. Considerable emphasis will be placed on the Civil War, which "remains the central event in American history," he said.

Rhodehamel credits Louise Taper, who has been a researcher at the Huntington for 20 years and serves on the institution's Board of Overseers, with initiating the exhibition. But once the idea got rolling, hundreds of people and dozens of organizations got involved with the $750,000 show. The National Endowment for the Humanities provided a core grant of $350,000. Additional financial support came from Nestle USA, Bank of America, ARCO Foundation, the Seaver Institute, the H. Russell Smith Foundation and Union Bank of Switzerland.

An educational program is a major component of the exhibition. Bus transportation to the Huntington will be provided for more than 15,000 students from Bakersfield to San Diego and 120 docents will be trained to lead student tours. In addition, 600 teachers will be invited to attend workshops designed to incorporate the show into 8th- and 11th-grade social studies curricula.

Three major publications are planned in conjunction with the show. The Huntington will publish an illustrated exhibition catalogue and a volume of papers to be presented by Lincoln scholars at a symposium on Oct. 14-19. A companion volume by Mark Neely, professor of history and American studies at St. Louis University, will be published by Harvard University Press.

"It might seem odd to have an exhibition about Lincoln here because he was not a West Coast figure, but in many ways this is the best place to do it," Rhodehamel said. "We have one of the largest library exhibition spaces in the country, the Huntington is a major center for the study of the Civil War and we get 600,000 visitors a year."

Those who want to see the Huntington Library's most celebrated holdings during the Lincoln exhibition will not be disappointed. Some manuscripts and rare books must be withdrawn from view to make room for Lincoln, but selected items--including the Gutenberg Bible, the Chaucer manuscript and the Shakespeare folio--will be on view in the library's changing exhibition hall.

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