Ford’s Theatre: Ask The Expert Interview Series

Written by: Lola Rogin, 2019-2020 Real World History Student, DC International School, 10th Grade

The following post is part of a collection created by high school students in the 2019-2020 Real World History course. The course teaches history through inquiry, equipping students with crucial skills that prepare them to thrive in our complex 21st century world. In the spring semester, students typically complete a 100-hour internship at a historic site or museum but due to Covid-19, this year’s class was unable to do so. Out of necessity, the class transitioned to an online model and changed its focus. Instead of learning about public history work through internship placements, Real World History students conducted a series of online interviews with public historians to learn about their work. Recognizing the implications of the pandemic on institutions of public history, the students also asked their interviewees to discuss the short-term and long-term changes this health crisis would have on the field. Each Real World History student then wrote a reflective blog piece about their interview and the spring semester. We hope their unique insights offer readers a glimpse into the experience of high school students in the spring of 2020 and the inner workings of these institutions at a peculiar moment in history.

When I found out I would be interning at Ford’s Theatre this Spring, my first thought was similar to most who have visited or heard of the institution: “That’s the place where Lincoln died!” I had visited the theatre before to see a play; seeing the President’s box and the museum downstairs with relics of the assassination was incredibly interesting. I learned through my internship however, that the theatre is more than a place where plays and performances happen. 

Lola Rogin, 2019-2020 Inspired Teaching Real World History Student

As the name goes, Ford’s is the place “Where Lincoln’s Legacy Lives,” and interning in the Center for Education and Learning taught me more about Lincoln as a person and what we can learn from him.

Me and my supervisor, Mr. Jake Flack, share not only a love for playing music but also a love for history. Mr. Flack grew up interested in history, and now works at Ford’s Theatre at the Center for Education and Learning. About his pathway to working at Ford’s Theatre, he states that he has “always been interested in history…I was teaching history to 7th and 8th grade students and I really loved it. We moved back to Washington and . . . wound up at Ford’s Theatre starting in 2009 . . .The thing I love the most is just getting to interact with students and in the summertime with teachers.”

NOTE: This 1.5-minute video is an excerpt from Lola’s full interview. You can view the full interview here

At the education department at Ford’s, teachers are trained how to teach about the Civil War and Lincoln and field trips for schools around the city are led, among many other things. During my time there, I was able to start work on a student museum guide for the incoming Gonzaga High School exhibit on enslaved peoples at the school. Getting to do work on the museum guide and also simply being in the presence of so much history and knowledge only made me more eager to continue my time there.

Even though we were separated by the Covid-19 crisis, I was able to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Flack about his background as someone who works in public history and what the future of Ford’s may look like. When talking to Mr Flack, and from my brief but wonderful time at Ford’s Theatre, I learned about how Ford’s is surrounded and enriched in DC history, from its proximity to Pennsylvania Avenue to where the ‘68 riots happened. Mr. Flack explains that the 700,000 visitors a year and the DC students who visit the theatre all learn new and valuable things about local DC history as well as about President Lincoln. Ford’s also explores areas of public history that aren’t directly related to Lincoln. For example, the Petersen House, where Lincoln died, tells the story of wartime Washington and how every person who lived in the house worked within the military industry.

Unfortunately, around the middle of March, my internship ended along with most of the normal daily proceedings of most people in the world.

When asked about what was done to respond to the COVID19 pandemic, Mr Flack shares that “we’re finding our way as we go, and we’re trying to quickly leverage things that we’ve already had online-if it was like a workshop or a field trip and sort of quickly get that out there. The other part for us as a museum is letting people know what resources that we have to offer, which is hard to do online.”

Jake Flack, Ford’s Theatre

Mr Flack believes that students can learn from Lincoln when it comes to his ability to continue to learn, to navigate problems in his life and overcome them, and bring people together. These same things are seen in Ford’s remarkable response to the COVID-19 crisis. Because it is a museum and theatre, so much of the goals of Ford’s are based upon public participation. When asking Mr. Flack how Ford’s has been able to respond, he replies that a lot of quick thinking had to be done due to how fast lockdowns happened. However, the response of Ford’s Theatre mirrors what we can learn from Lincoln. They were able to adapt and overcome the quick changes and “leverage the resources already online such as workshops and field trips.” Ford’s has been able to use the internet to host virtual field trips, host online lessons, and open the digital archives for all to see and explore. 

As this crisis continues and the future remains unclear, the question is raised among all people whether or not things will return to normal. Mr Flack agrees, stating that we are part of a new reality. Probably the most important and valuable part of museums is the resources they house.

Mr. Flack says that spreading the word to teachers about what Ford’s has to offer online is critical, such as virtual field trips touring the museum or workshops about different aspects of Civil War and/or DC History. It’s not easy, either communicating or getting word out online, as students such as me will understand all too well after working with teachers on Zoom for almost 60 days now-it is even harder than usual to learn math online. Ford’s is adapting to our new normal by working with different departments and the theatre. 

New chapters of DC history are happening as we go about our lives during this pandemic. Not only Ford’s Theatre but institutions across the city, and country, will no doubt be documenting the crisis.

It is fascinating to think that I am a part of something as monumental as this crisis while a student, as I get a first person perspective on how different school has to be as it moved from 2000+ people gathering a day to everyone in their respective homes.

Looking to the future, I wonder whether or not places like Ford’s will ever be the same in the way they convey history to the public. Even if it takes years for Ford’s Theatre to be completely open to the public again, it will surely rise to the challenge and continue to be an amazing resource for the DC community to learn about Civil War and DC History.

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