Lincoln lay dying, having been shot ten hours before. He breathed his last, diarist Mary Henry recorded, at 7:30 a.m. on April 15, 1865, with a "faint hardly perceptible motion in his throat....So still was the room that the ticking of the President's watch was distinctly heard." Who was with him? Not Henry. Her vivid diary entry drew on what Lincoln's pastor, the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, had told her. Gurley also said he broke the news to Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady, "in the parlor below." How then to explain Death of Abraham Lincoln, the well-known 1868 oil painting, which depicts Mrs. Lincoln in a large room full of dignitaries?
Historians often must draw conclusions based on conflicting evidence, and starting this past February the Smithsonian Community of Learners—4,192 teachers, their students, librarians and history buffs in 1,631 cities and 69 countries—took up the Lincoln death painting in an online conference. At one point Smithsonian historian Pamela Henson uploaded a photograph, taken just after Lincoln's body was removed, of the very small room (about 8 by 11 feet) where the 16th president had died. So much for the painting! It turns out to be less an accurate portrayal than a roll call of the people who came to Lincoln's bedside all through the night and early the next morning.
Mary Henry's diary is just one of many Smithsonian artifacts illuminating Lincoln's life available through the pan-institutional "connections" project at www.goSmithsonian.com/SIConnections; the continuing online Lincoln conference is available at www.smithsonianeducation.org. These two Web initiatives underscore the conclusions of a National Research Council report that emphasize the value of museum exhibits and collections, interactive dialogue and group participation. The huge potential of informal education is now within our grasp through online interactions with curators, scholars and historians. Web technologies now make geographical distances disappear; teachers and students all over the world are able to learn from each other in sustained dialogue.
Educators in my hometown of Douglas, Georgia (metropolitan population about 50,000), have joined the ever-growing Smithsonian Community of Learners. As Douglas high-school teacher Lorraine Fussell said of the Lincoln conference: "Most valuable to my students (and to me) were the responses [by Smithsonian historian and blogger Courtney Esposito and others] to several of our comments. In high-school lingo, that was 'cool.'" We welcome everyone to our next online conference, in the fall; it will be about climate change.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.