Business

Outside the Cube: Housekeeping becomes her

She's paid to be house-proud: Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln house, can be excused for wanting to show off her home. As the only full-time employee, it's Thompson's job to preserve, protect and promote the historic site as well as educate the public about the people who lived there.

Public duties, private space: Thompson spends most of her day in a third-floor office with sloping ceilings and windows that look out on West Main Street and Main Street Baptist Church next door.

Of the 14 rooms in the girlhood home of Abraham Lincoln's wife, it's the only one not open to the public. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln peers over her shoulder while she works. Documents, pictures, and other items that might or might not be of historic significance keep her company as they await their fate — in storage or on display.

Powerful stuff: Thompson explains how she got here: "I remember thinking to myself at one point, 'If I have to work, I should like where I go to work.' And the places I liked most were museums and libraries." So she majored in history at the University of Kentucky, then got her master's at Murray State University with a specialization in "public history," which essentially means finding ways to connect the two — the public with the past, a perfect combination for this self-described "people person."

The best way to make that connection is through places and old stuff — things that carry "the power of the authentic," as they say in the history business. Since Thompson loved rummaging in her grandparents' basement and poking around antiques stores when she was little, it's not surprising that she calls this "a dream job."

A long I-do list: "What do I do? In many ways I have a lot of small-business duties, like budgeting, hiring, customer service. But there's also taking care of the collections, writing grant proposals and doing research." Add to that pulling weeds, taking out the trash, defrosting the mini-fridge, giving the occasional tour and fretting about the health of the hornbeams that line the garden. Their roots, it seems, have a lot of concrete to fight three feet down. But "I like that I'm juggling jobs."

Fully rechargeable: When she needs to recharge her batteries, she'll go down to the county clerk's office and pore over old documents. "Looking through census records for me is fun," says Thompson.

Lately she's been able to add to knowledge about the slaves who served the Todd family, through Freedmen's Bureau records. It was exciting, she says, to have her discoveries confirmed by an early biography of Mary written by Mary's niece, Katherine Helm. "What was the date of that book?" she calls to part-time employee Tom Wright in the next room. The answer comes back: 1928. "Oddly enough, I'm not very good at names or dates," she confesses.

Eventually she'd like to create a separate brochure about the slaves who worked in the house and lived in outbuildings long since torn down. She says many visitors aren't aware of the family's divided attitudes on slavery and the Confederacy.

Paranormal investigator on line one: Another of Thompson's responsibilities is answering the phone and responding to unusual requests. On one recent day she had a call from a society of paranormal investigators from Ohio who wanted to test the house, and another from a man wanting her to read his screenplay about Mary. Film crews from C-SPAN and a Japanese station came through not long ago, on the same day.

"We have this cradle": People often call wanting help verifying the provenance of an artifact. She likes helping them crack their history mystery. Sometimes items actually do turn out to have a connection to the Todd family, and she'll advise on the best way to care for them.

Mary, Mary, quite con...troversial: What is it that makes some people love Mary Todd Lincoln and others revile her? As Thompson says, "she is a very human historical figure. She had both positive and negative traits. I think that's what makes her so interesting." The house simply attempts to "give a balanced interpretation that informs our visitors and encourages them to want to learn more."

Did you remember his birthday? Thompson says she's been attending meetings and planning for the two-year celebration of Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial since she was hired in March 2004. As we approach the midpoint of that party, the actual 200th anniversary itself, she's busy making preparations for a lecture series and an exhibit downtown at the library. "That's one of the great things about my job. I'm always learning, too. I've never planned a speakers' series before, or prepared an exhibit."

After the party's over: This year the house is set to open for the season on Presidents Day, a month earlier than usual. They've seen a big uptick in visitors because of all the anniversary hoopla. And with a year still to go, it's far too early for Thompson to be thinking about any post-celebration letdown. This executive director still has a lot of partying left to do.

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