American by Belief

By Special Contributor posted 09-20-2016 15:50


By Callie Hawkins

The United States is and always has been a nation of immigrants. On July 4, 1864, the same day the Lincoln family moved to President Lincoln’s Cottage for the last time, Abraham Lincoln signed into law An Act to Encourage Immigration. This legislation fulfilled the promise of the 1860 Republican Party platform that pledged that immigration “should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.” Lincoln recognized immigrants as one of America’s greatest resources and its best hope for the future and believed that America, in return, owed immigrants the full realization of its founding promises and a fair chance to succeed. Lincoln’s Act remains the only legislation in American history specifically dedicated to encouraging immigration.


American by Belief sheds light on Lincoln’s little-known immigration policies and connects his vision to contemporary immigration issues. | Photo courtesy of Howard Revis Design

Fast forward 150 years and more than 25 pieces of immigration reform legislation, and the ideals embodied in An Act to Encourage Immigration continue to draw immigrants to the United States. Our world is different than Lincoln’s, but what continues to bring immigrants here would look familiar to him: an opportunity to rise higher, improve themselves, live safely under the rule of law, become citizens, and count themselves as American by right of belief.

In October 2015 President Lincoln’s Cottage opened American by Belief, a special exhibition to shed light on Lincoln’s little-known immigration policies and to connect his vision to contemporary immigration issues. While much of today’s national conversation revolves around policies to restrict immigrants’ access, American by Belief shows that, while the nuances have evolved over time, the tension over immigration has ever been present. In this tense atmosphere, the Cottage sought to provide a welcoming, inclusive setting. The issues Lincoln grappled with while living here are the predecessors of what we face today. Huge strides were made here, yes, but Lincoln recognized that more work had to be done to achieve our nation's ideals. Thus, the exhibit is both reflective and hopeful.

Enhanced Understanding

The exhibit content is carried on graphic text panels along the walls throughout the gallery. It was important to us to highlight the arc of history, so the exhibit avoids a one-to-one comparison between immigration of the 1860s and immigration today while still underscoring the continuum of hardship and sacrifice by bridging more than 150 years of immigrants’ struggles and aspirations.


Misha Nikulin and his family first visited the Cottage when his daughter took the Oath of Citizenship there in May 2015. After that experience they agreed to be interviewed for the exhibit. | Photo courtesy of Misha Nikulin

Compared to our previous special exhibit, Can You Walk Away?, which focused on modern slavery, the area of existing knowledge among visitors to American by Belief has been reversed. The vast majority of our visitors were aware of the significance of historical slavery to this place and Lincoln’s role in its legal end, but fewer people knew much about the contemporary issue of human trafficking. In contrast, it’s nearly impossible to tune into the news today without encountering a piece on the latest push for immigration reform or a recent tale of a family tragically separated by a border. However, few people are aware of the sudden shift that occurred between 1850 and 1860, when the foreign-born population of the United States doubled, changing the country’s entire demographic make up. And very few know of Lincoln’s role in promoting immigration. Walls come up between our present and our history, and we’re left feeling isolated and adrift in our particular struggle. But the past gives us an anchor for assessing contemporary challenges and provides context for solutions.

American by Belief has helped show that, while the manifestations may be new, the struggles are not. I believe that the single most eye-opening statistic of the exhibit is that in 1860 immigrants made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population—the same percentage as today. I often observe visitors calling others over to the graphic that reveals this particular figure and am always interested to witness moments of shared discovery that tear down long-held, misinformed beliefs and enhance visitors’ understanding of immigration, yesterday and today.

Partnerships: A Habit of Our Practice

President Lincoln’s Cottage makes it a habit to engage with partner organizations that contribute to the success of our programs, and this exhibit provided many such opportunities.

If hearing Lincoln’s name and immigration reform in the same sentence seems surprising, that’s for very good reason. Of the nearly 17,000 books written about our 16th president, no scholar had devoted an entire volume to examining Lincoln’s work on immigration—until fall 2015, when Jason Silverman of Winthrop University published Lincoln and the Immigrant. When we learned of his book, we immediately reached out to discuss our exhibit with him. He made an early draft of his manuscript available to us and agreed to review several rounds of our exhibit scripts. Professor Silverman provided us with invaluable guidance and access to the most current scholarship on Lincoln and immigration.


A tabletop map invites visitors to tell their families' immigration stories by connecting bands from their countries of origin to their destination. | Photo courtesy of Howard Revis Design

The Cottage also reached out to the American Immigration Council (AIC) requesting its input regarding contemporary immigration matters. AIC provided statistics, guidance on the exhibit script, and access to a trove of recent immigration stories. Moreover, AIC has introduced us to other individuals and organizations working in this field, leading to new opportunities for public and education programming.

The Cottage has been working with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for several years, host youth naturalization ceremonies. During the exhibit planning phase, we invited families involved in an upcoming youth ceremony to be interviewed; thanks to USCIS’s gracious assistance, we interviewed three families about their unique trials and triumphs in making the United States their new home. The exhibit opening offered an opportunity to expand on this relationship with USCIS by hosting a naturalization ceremony for adults. Twenty-five people took the Oath of Allegiance on the south lawn of the Cottage—among them a member of the military, a military spouse, and a mother who had given her young son Lincoln as a middle name, a nod to her favorite president. It was the perfect way to open such a monumental exhibit.

Make It Personal, Not Political

Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, we felt very strongly that our visitors should help shape the exhibit narrative, so we incorporated two opportunities for visitors to contribute their own immigration stories.


Visitor comment cards provide space for visitors to write their immigration story and hang them on the wall to share with others. Photo courtesy of Howard Revis Design.

A tabletop map, located at the center of the room, invites visitors to tell us where their family is from and why they came. Colored rubber bands represent six potential reasons: family, jobs, refuge and asylum, freedom, education, and force. Visitors select one of these bands and use it to connect their place of origin to their place of destination by hooking it around pins distributed across the map. Feedback cards that use the same color coding organization complement the map, and visitors are encouraged to share their stories and hang their responses on hooks arranged around the wall. The result is two attractive and incredibly moving displays that reflect personal immigration journeys prominently and thoughtfully integrate them with the rest of the exhibit. Visitor input isn’t an afterthought, so we made it central to the purpose, design, and growth of the exhibit.

When the exhibit first opened, the majority of hand-written immigration stories were about long-ago ancestors who had traveled on early ships leaving Europe for the New World. Several days after opening, I noticed more stories emerging from World War II, including several from Holocaust survivors. Within a few weeks, one courageous young visitor shared a story of her mother, who was deported last year. Once that story was shared, dozens of similar, contemporary stories flowed, and now these walls are filled with recent and historical journeys of heartbreak and hope, success and separation.


These cards share recent and historical journeys of heartbreak and hope, success and separation. | Photo courtesy of Howard Revis Design

I am constantly moved by these personal stories, but nothing prepared me for a card I read the other day. A visitor wrote, “My dad was deported with the 2.5 million other people President Obama has deported since taking office.” At the bottom, it further read, “I’m so sorry”—signed, “Another Visitor.” As a museum professional, this is precisely the kind of interaction you hope exhibits will invite, but it isn’t always something you can plan for. It is well known in education theory that understanding is enhanced when people are active participants in their own learning, and that is certainly part of the impetus for these interactive elements. But their greatest success is that they remove politics from the immigration narrative and makes it personal.

Callie Hawkins is the associate director for programs at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C.

#LincolnsCottage #Diversity #HistoricSites #Interpretation

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