Death mask of President William McKinley, 1901 (Division of Political History, National Museum of American History)
Imagine opening a drawer and finding the death mask of President Grant staring up at you. Sara Murphy and Bethanee Bemis, museum specialists in the division of political history at the American History Museum, have done just that. Once they had quite literally stared death in the face, they started to see it popping up in various guises everywhere in the collections.
When the nation’s leader dies, the period of mourning that follows helps the nation through grief and establishes how it will remember the president. An intriguing offshoot of that process has been the surprising accumulation of stuff—the material culture of death, if you will—that appears. There are “official” souvenirs such as mourning jewelry, stationary, and floral arrangements. And then there are the “unofficial” mementos, including locks of hair, scraps of crepe, and coffin fragments.
The reaction to a leader’s death through assassination is quite different than through natural causes, and has also been reflected in objects related to that event. Join Murphy and Bemis as they uncover some of the extraordinary stuff of presidential death in the American History Museum’s collections. They explore what we saved (and whose momentos we saved) and why in a fascinating look into our nation’s history and how we remember our fallen leaders.
Part of the warm-up programming to Death Becomes Us: A True Crime Festival on November 3-4, 2018 in Washington, DC.
You might enjoy these stories from the National American History’s blog, O Say Can You See.