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Working with American Treasures

Working with American Treasures

Over Veterans Day weekend Abraham Lincoln’s “reading copy” of the Gettysburg Address was added to The Civil War in America, an exhibition on view through January 4, 2014 at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, DC. “This copy, known as the Nicolay copy, was written partially on a torn piece of yellow paper and actually has creases in it indicating it was folded up in Lincoln’s pocket,” says LOC Interpretive Programs Officer William “Jake” Jacobs ARch/MID 80. “Lincoln was always editing and re-editing his work.”

Jacobs has been managing the LOC’s ambitious exhibitions program since 2009, overseeing on-site and traveling shows and a comprehensive, educational website with thousands of high-resolution images available to the general public. Before that he spent 28 years designing exhibitions for the Smithsonian and knows the intricacies of its many galleries inside and out. Since education is key at both institutions, every exhibition he works on includes an extensive online catalogue with details about the “wealth of riches” included in the show.

“You can go into any collection, open a drawer and see the most phenomenal stuff,” says Jacobs. “It’s absolutely stunning. We’re working on an exhibition about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that will open next summer. We have March on Washington posters, oral archives, films, protest songs, newspapers…. The question is not ‘what have we got?’ but ‘what do we want to use from this incredible archive to tell the story?’”

Jacobs works with curatorial teams, content specialists, project managers and writers to create each exhibition and says that his success depends on his own conviction about what each show should ultimately say and his ability to express and validate his opinions. The critiques he prepared for at RISD were fundamental to developing these skills.

“Back at RISD, crits were my favorite part,” he recalls. “Twenty people assigned the same project would show up with 20 different approaches. I was always blown away by that.”

Jacobs has had the opportunity to tell a wide range of stories in his work, using everything from huge aircraft and an actual NASA space shuttle (at the National Air and Space Museum) to small, intimate items like diaries, photographs and letters. “When you see the original documents, there’s a real immediacy to them,” he says. “We had a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence on display with notations by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. So you can see the collaborative aspect of the document.”

The tremendous variety in Jacobs’ projects is what makes him passionate about his work. “With my training in art history, architecture and industrial design, exhibition design seemed like a natural fit,” he says. “These days, I’m mostly managing teams, but I still do some of the sophisticated exhibit case work myself. I’m keenly interested in conservation.”

Simone Solondz

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