While the fight to end slavery in the U.S. is winning hearts and minds at movie theaters — on Thursday, “Lincoln,” the movie, earned 12 Academy Award nominations — travelers seeking a more intimate glimpse of history may want to head to a museum instead.
Signed 150 years ago this month, the Emancipation Proclamation that provides the backstory for the film is on display at museums and other cultural venues across the country.
It turns out that the document that “freed the slaves” did not, in fact, end slavery in America. Rather, it was part of a process designed to bring the issue to the forefront in the Civil War. The Proclamation provided moral support for the Union cause, encouraged black men to enlist and set the stage for the passage of the 13th Amendment that would officially abolish slavery in the U.S.
As such, the Proclamation is more accurately seen as part of “the entire emancipatory process that eventually freed 4 million people and brought the United States back together,” said Michelle Krowl, Civil War specialist at the Library of Congress.
Still, and technicalities aside, there’s no denying the significance of the document. “It changed the nation,” said Howard Pollman, spokesman for The State Museum of Pennsylvania, “and we’re still feeling the repercussions of it today.”
The following venues all offer unique takes on the story:
Library of Congress
While there are multiple versions and various copies of the Emancipation Proclamation still in existence, there was, of course, only one first draft, which was written by Lincoln in the summer of 1862. The handwritten document, which has not been on public display since 2009, can now be viewed at the Library of Congress in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition, “The Civil War in America.” The Proclamation is on display until Feb. 18; the larger exhibition runs until June 1.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania
The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg will showcase a copy of the Proclamation signed by Lincoln in 1864 as part of a special exhibit, "Emancipation: Lincoln and His Proclamation" (Jan. 12–Feb. 3). Set among satirical cartoons, period posters and letters from soldiers, the exhibit “provides context as to how the document was received at the time,” said Pollman. The exhibit will kick off with a special presentation by Harold Holzer, noted Lincoln biographer and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, on Friday, Jan. 11.
Indiana State Museum
As noted above, the Proclamation didn’t officially abolish slavery in the U.S.; that wouldn’t happen for two more years with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. At the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, visitors can view signed copies of both documents through March 2. A companion exhibit, “Lincoln: Five Generations of an American Family,” will run Feb. 9–Aug. 4 and will chronicle the family’s oft-difficult history through official documents, family photographs and personal possessions.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The immediate impact of the Emancipation Proclamation can be debated but its signing remains a seminal event that has echoed across the American landscape ever since. That’s the premise of "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963," now on display through Sept. 15 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first event took place 150 years ago; the second, 100 years later. Together, they represent key waypoints in the timeline of the American experience.
Finally, for those who can’t make it to any of the above, the American Library Association (ALA) and National Constitution Center have partnered on a traveling exhibit that is currently visiting libraries and museums across the country.
Like the Spielberg film, “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” goes beyond the Emancipation Proclamation to explore the political and constitutional battles over slavery, secession and civil liberties that raged during the Civil War. For tour dates and locations, visit the ALA website.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.