A New Version of Old Abe

The Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, is helping
change how history is presented.

By Harold Frost

The History Channel Magazine, July/August 2009

One of the first things you see as you enter the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is a statue of the great man himself. This statue is different from many depictions of the 16th President – it doesn’t inspire awe and reverence. It’s not 20 feet tall, it’s not made of marble, and it’s not somber.

This version of Old Abe is life-sized. His eyes appear to twinkle if you look at them at a certain angle. He has plastic “skin” that resembles human flesh – much more approachable than marble. This Lincoln is not a secular saint; he’s your neighbor, your buddy, your pal, ready to help you fix your roof and then worry about saving democracy.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Springfield museum. A scaled-down model of the White House looms behind him. An interactive screen can be seen at bottom left. (Photo by ALPLM).

The Lincoln museum (also known as the ALPLM) is located in downtown Springfield, Illinois, the state capital, Abe’s stomping grounds for many years. The city is situated in the midst of cornfields about 3.5 hours southwest of Chicago and two hours north of St. Louis; it’s reachable by Interstate and Amtrak. (Riding the train there while reading about Lincoln, or reading aloud with a child about Lincoln, is a memorable experience.)

The facility opened its doors in 2005. It was designed by Disney-influenced people. Their canny decisions make Abe accessible – fun for kids, interesting for grown-ups.

The museum features multimedia displays, holographs, and interactive touch screens….cool gizmos and special effects…. sophisticated use of sound and light….an animated map titled “The Civil War in Four Minutes”….all the snazzy high tech apparatus of a new generation of history museums.

The museum’s emphasis on multimedia pizzazz represents a “major trend” in museums today, says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. History museums are spending big bucks on high tech displays, hiring consultants with more background in entertainment than history, buying a lot of computer hardware and software. “Technology has become more available over the last 10 years,” notes Bell, “and it’s being embraced by larger history museums, by science and technology museums, and by art museums too.” For example, in 2006, Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia, opened a multimedia-based wing, meanwhile preserving the time-honored home and gardens. The new stuff has reinvigorated the facility, says executive director Jim Rees: “I think we’re a much better experience for families now than before,” he says, which may a polite way of saying that kids are less bored these days. Mount Vernon drew 1.1 million visitors in 2008 compared to 790,000 in 2003, says Rees. (Annual attendance at the Lincoln museum is 400,000 to 500,000, impressive for a facility in a small city.)

A few observers have gotten their knickers into bunches about the Lincoln museum’s use of multimedia. Historian John Y. Simon of Southern Illinois University skewered the ALPLM in an article, describing it as “Six Flags Over Lincoln,” a reference to the popular theme parks. Journalist Andrew Ferguson, in his amusing book “Land of Lincoln” (2006), asks, “What does (Lincoln) stand for? You could spend hours in the museum without finding an answer.”

Others disagree. Historian Keith A. Erekson writes in The Indiana Magazine of History that the ALPLM succeeds in “informing and inspiring a broad public audience.” Historian John R. Decker comments in The Journal of American History, “The (museum) intelligently and compellingly uses visual culture to meet its mission….(It) fulfills the primary mission of any pedagogical institution – it transmits knowledge, inspires inquiry, and opens the discourse to a multiplicity of voices and opinions.” In other words, thumbs up. (See here for a comment by a history teacher about the importance of entertainment for today’s students.)

History museums face a balancing act if they want to preserve credibility, says Ford Bell of the museum association. Even as they add high tech stuff, they must continue to pay strict attention to the display of authentic objects from the past – actual rifles, original furniture and documents. The Lincoln museum displays up to 100 historical artifacts at any given time, such as letters in Lincoln’s hand.

You walk through a series of “journeys” at the ALPLM depicting periods of Lincoln’s life – his boyhood, the lawyer years, the White House, etc. A few highlights:

* The museum communicates the agony of the slave trade but doesn’t overwhelm kids with it – a tricky balancing act. Recently, a six-year-old girl named Rachel Dirck stood quietly in front of a realistic exhibit of a slave family (depicted by realistic mannequins) being ripped asunder. This display is a descendant of museum dioramas of decades ago, but it’s far better executed, better lit, more dramatic. Rachel studied the tableau, turned to her father, Brian, and said, “Daddy, that was wrong.” Brian said later, “I’d say that’s the sort of thing a museum like this is supposed to do.” Fifty years ago, did history museums generate such thoughtfulness and emotion in six-year-olds?

* A total of 36 life-like plastic-skinned mannequins inhabit the museum, including Abe at various stages of his life, Mary Lincoln, their children, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth lurking suspiciously, etc. At first, you expect these figures to move and talk, but they don’t. They’re not Disneyland robots. And this is no great loss.

* You turn a corner at one point, and suddenly you seem to be standing in a dimly-lit White House bedroom in early 1862. Figures portray young Willie Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln, and the president. You feel you’re right there at the foot of a bed where Willie is lying seriously ill (he died on February 20, 1862, apparently of typhoid). His mother, dressed in a ball gown, tends to him; his father worriedly pokes his head in the door. Sounds of a “reception” filter in from “downstairs.” The effect is eerie and moving.

* The Civil War gets its due, of course. The highlight in the war section is an impressive mural of Gettysburg – a 40-foot-wide painting by Keith Rocco that depicts the battle, the burying of the dead, and the immortal address. A key feature of the museum’s war area is a four-minute animated map. When it’s viewed in the context of all the other war stuff, it doesn’t seem cursory, surprisingly enough. (One can imagine a discussion among the designers: “OK, people, we’ve gotta decide – are we gonna depict the nation’s greatest tragedy in four minutes, or do you think we can risk going to five?”)

* Students of museum lighting will learn from this place for years to come. As you walk from room to room, from exhibit to exhibit, the lighting changes from dim to bright, from blues to reds, from pinpoint spotlights to boisterous chandeliers – the visual experience is invigorating.

* The museum’s use of sound is equally superb. For example, in the “Whispering Gallery,” hidden voices, piped in via speakers, relate some of the personal attacks made on the Lincolns during the war, such as the notion that Mary Lincoln was a Confederate sympathizer (common gossip during the war, but not true). At other places you hear fiddle music, cannon fire, chirping birds, crackling fires, and exuberant political crowds.

* Volunteer guides are friendly and knowledgeable. Signage is good, offering many reading suggestions. The bookstore/gift shop is very fine.

The museum is “actually pretty cool,” says Wesley Thrall, age 10, who lives in a nearby town and visited with his dad and sister. Cool is important, to be sure, but what about the education factor? Having toured the facility, is Wesley more interested in Lincoln? Perhaps more willing to read books about the man and his era? “Yeah, I want to,” he says. “The history of his life is sort of more alive now. It’s about people. I like that.” ●