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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

President Lincoln Museum Review


Strumming the Mystic Chords of Memory

Published: April 19, 2005

PRINGFIELD, Ill., April 18 - It is not Abraham Lincoln's handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address that is getting all the attention here, nor is it one of his stovepipe hats, still bearing the marks of his fingers where he regularly reached for its brim. Not even the white gloves found in his pocket after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth lure many viewers.

These objects may bear the ghostly traces of Lincoln's touch, but would a $90 million museum have been built to house them? Would $54 million of that sum have gone to the design firm BRC Imagination Arts (which describes itself as the creators of "21st-century experience-based attractions"), if the usual museum display cases were the main experience being offered? And would such objects have inspired the fireworks and festivities of this past weekend, let alone the dedication ceremony scheduled for Tuesday morning, with 10,000 seats set up outdoors and President Bush expected to speak after a museum tour?

Not likely. Something more is being promised by the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, a building designed by Gyo Obata. It is the centerpiece of a $150 million construction and development project in downtown Springfield that already includes a $25 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, housing more 12 million items, 47,000 of them related to Lincoln. (It is also the depository of the Illinois State Historical Library.) The complex will eventually have a park and a renovated 19th-century train station, serving as a parking garage and visitor orientation center.

Almost a million people visit Lincoln-related sites every year in Illinois, according to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau in Springfield; the new research library and museum will become what they are calling the city's crown jewel.

What is being promised is not just a tourist attraction, but a full Lincoln Experience. As Richard Norton Smith, the museum's executive director, said, "If you want to see marble icons, go to Washington." BRC's founder, Bob Rogers (who once worked at Walt Disney Imagineering), said the goal was to overturn traditional expectations and create an "experience museum." "There is nothing we wouldn't do," he said in a conversation, "to get people in."

The strategy is hinted at in a magical stage presentation, "Ghosts of the Library," at which a historian emerges on a set that suggests the research facility next door. Why should we care about all these old objects, he asks. But thanks to technological stagecraft, they seem to come to life as he handles them. A quill pen lifts and writes the Gettysburg Address in midair. A soldier's diary conjures up a battle.

In the museum, too, historical documents are meant to bring ghostly history to life. Instead of marble icons posed in Lincolnesque grandeur surrounded by etched texts, there are fiberglass and silicone figures inhabiting lifelike dioramas: a young Abe Lincoln reading Aesop's Fables outside his Indiana log cabin; Lincoln in his general store in New Salem, Ill.; on a couch courting Mary Todd; in the White House with the Emancipation Proclamation; at Ford's theater moments before he was shot.

There is also sound: whispered insults like those hurled at President Lincoln by editorialists and cartoonists; vituperation hollered at him by images of actors objecting to the Emancipation Proclamation; voices of black servants in the White House kitchen discussing the latest gossip. There is even video, including a mock television studio in which the newscaster Tim Russert reports on the election of 1860, complete with campaign commercials.

We are led through a virtual life of sorts. Even locations not far from the museum are reproduced: the train depot where Lincoln said farewell as he went off to Washington, the Old State Capitol where his body was viewed by 75,000 mourners.

The museum literature points out that its goal "is not to fully explain all of the issues that confronted Lincoln but to inspire in the visitor a deep sense of personal connection and empathy with the man."

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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