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Visual Description | The American Presidency

Exhibit Overview

The American Presidency is a large exhibition measuring 7,500 square feet. The main entrance features the exhibition title and is adjacent to the First Ladies exhibition. The exhibition space is not brightly lit and is divided up into several themed sections based on the different roles of presidents and their impact on the American public. Each section is designed to relate to the topic it explores. For example, the section that talks about the personal life of the presidents is designed to look like the interior of the White House. 


George Washington Farewell Address Candle Stand 


According to family tradition, President George Washington worked on his farewell address by the light of this brass candelabrum with reflector.

Verbal Description

The first section of the exhibition contains objects and stories pertaining to the creation of the presidency. Cases in this space are arranged along the far right and left-hand sides of the room. The back wall shows a timeline of presidents starting with George Washington on the right and ending with the current president on the left. In the center of the room is a large display of the carriage in which President Ulysses S. Grant rode to his second inauguration. In the back corner of the room on the right-hand side there is a case containing a candle stand that belonged to George Washington. It is displayed on a shelf mounted to the back wall of its case about four and half feet off the ground. The inside of the case is painted pale yellow, except for the back wall which is covered in a fabric of the same color with a pattern of small stars. The only other object in the case is a bandana featuring an artistic rendering of Washington and excerpts from his farewell address; this is displayed beneath the candle stand. The candle stand is approximately twenty-two inches tall and eleven inches wide at its widest point. It is made of brass and consists of a slender central column to which are attached the reflector and the candle holders. There are two holders near the wide, circular base—one on each side—and an adjustment bar attached to the center column by thin metal arms that are wavy in design. The reflector is attached near the top of the center piece. It is affixed by a thin, curving metal piece that is cylindrical, like thick wire. This holds the actual reflector away from the central column. The reflector is a flat, rectangular sheet of brass about ten inches wide. The brass of the reflector is slightly uneven and appears hammered.


Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat


Objects owned by or associated with Lincoln quickly became relics, reminding Americans of Lincoln's greatness and challenging them to keep his ideals alive.
One of the Smithsonian Institution's most treasured icons is this top hat, worn by Lincoln to Ford's Theatre on the night of his assassination.
The flag was flown on the funeral train as it traveled between Albany and Utica, New York.

Verbal Description

This section of the exhibition explores how the nation mourns a president’s death. The colors used in this space are dark and muted. The case design is somber and solid, with industrial details, such as riveted metal, that give the impression that these objects are sealed in the vault of collective memory. In the very center of the section, a lone case rises from the floor. It contains the top hat that Abraham Lincoln wore the night that he was assassinated. The hat is displayed about three and a half feet off the ground on a light blue plinth that creates a stark contrast with the dark color of the hat itself. The size of the hat is close to a contemporary size 7 1/8. The hat is covered in silk that has become so worn over time that the hat’s shell is visible through the remnants of material and the hat’s color is a faded brown, mottled with a shiny finish. The material of the hat is shaped and textured in such a way that the top of the hat appears to be covered in a series of concentric circles that spill down over the sides, encircling it in a pattern of thin, parallel lines. A wide ribbon is wrapped around the hat just above the brim and is made of a more matte, uniformly brown-colored material. 


Teddy Bear 


The idea for the teddy bear came from a 1902 newspaper cartoon by Clifford Berryman. It showed President Theodore Roosevelt, a noted hunter and outdoorsman, refusing to shoot a captured bear cub. The story helped cement Roosevelt's image as a masculine but compassionate leader. 

This early teddy bear was made by the Ideal Toy Company.

Verbal Description

This teddy bear is part of a section titled “The Presidency in Popular Imagination.” The bear is displayed in a case alongside other commercial presidential items such as board games and commemorative dishes. The objects are displayed on platforms of varying sizes stacked on top of each other in the case like steps. The teddy bear sits on the far right-hand side of the second step up from the bottom next to a set of miniature figurines of presidents. The bear is displayed in a seated position and leans into a corner as if left there by a child at play. The teddy bear is about two feet long from toes to ears and is made of a furry, light brown plush material. It has two shiny, black bead eyes, a black stitched snout, and furry, cream-colored pads on the bottom of all four paws.