21Country: Rare items from Lincoln collection now on display

New research center updates collection available to see by public for the first time
Updated: Sep. 1, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - In January, The Rolland Center for Lincoln Research opened to the public — a project finally completed, after years of planning. Now, over 20,000 items within the massive Abraham Lincoln collection, donated by the Lincoln Financial Group, will cycle on display at the center, found at the Allen County Public Library downtown. For the first time after opening, new items have replaced those on display before, giving public access to rare Lincoln artifacts accessible for the public to see up close.

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The pandemic wreaked havoc on the center’s timeline to open, and potential attendance. But now, those who manage the collection say over the last several months, the fruits of their labor is paying off. “We’ve had almost 7,000 people through the doors since we opened — the response has been so amazing,” Sr. Lincoln Librarian Jessie Cortesi told us. “Previously, we featured the Lincoln family photo album, general overview of President Lincoln, Civil war, and slavery. The cases that we’re changing over now are featuring Mary Todd Lincoln, the Lincoln assassination, and the elections of 1860 and 1864.”

The Lincoln Collection is on display in two ways: with artifacts, and virtually. “People seem to love the combination of technology and actual artifacts. We have a little bit of something for everybody,” she added. Digital elements, which include kiosks, an interactive timeline of Lincoln’s life, and a 180-degree projection room, can be updated through a computer. Physical, delicate artifacts like papers and photographs, are a lot more complicated. “What was in the cases prior, needs to go home safely. We look at those spreadsheets of everything — we have to make sure our I’s dotted and T’s crossed, where it goes — because this collection is so important,” Lincoln Librarian Kayla Gustafson shared. “The next step is just kind of picking different topics from our collection.”

“Since it’s such a large collection, a topic can go one way or another. We have picked three really good topics this time around,” she continued. “We choose items, we position the items, it’s really meticulous going through each thing.” One of Gustafson’s favorite pieces in the collection, is an image of the president’s Indianapolis funeral. Another touched-up photo from the 1800s shows Lincoln lying in state in Washington. Cortesi’s favorite items include The Wide-Awake Vocalist, a book of songs and musics made by supportive constituents which helped him win his elections. Cortesi was also excited to share what could be the collection’s most unique and popular item: Mary Todd Lincoln’s spirit photo. The image depicts what looks to be the ghost of the late president faded in the background of the former first lady’s portrait.

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“It’s great to get all the stuff out of the basement, so more of the public is able to experience this amazing collection,” Cortesi said. “I think what people really get out of a space like this is the humanization of president Lincoln. He’s kind of deified. He’s kind of a myth — a legend now. And we’re able to bring him back down to where people can relate to the family.” With students returning to school, the center is preparing to see a lot more traffic over the next year. Right now, they offer monthly scavenger hunts. Kids who find the answers to every question, are awarded an Abraham Lincoln pin. It’s already gotten several children and their parents returning as regulars.

As the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research approaches its first year open, both Lincoln librarians continue to look at different ways incorporate education and events with holidays and additional updates. Though its still new to the community, Cortesi is looking at refreshing the displays every six months or so. “A lot of people don’t know all about Lincoln’s connections to Indiana, and they are great,” she shared. “We have lots of flexibility with this space to be able to cater to a lot of events.”

“We definitely want to continuously have new material for folks to enjoy for repeat visits.” The hours for the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research are:

  • Sunday: 12 to 5
  • Monday: 9 to 5
  • Tuesday: 9 to 9
  • Wednesday: 9 to 5
  • Thursday: 9 to 9
  • Friday: 9 to 6
  • Saturday: 9 to 6

You can find more information on the collection here.