Ill. Museum Brings Abraham Lincoln to Life
Tue Apr 12, 9:56 AM ET U.S. National - AP
By CHRISTOPHER WILLS, Associated Press Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois - In most museums, Abraham Lincoln is discussed in hushed voices and illustrated with sepia-toned photos and marble statues that give him a saintly air.
The new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum doesn't buy into that reverence — it brings Lincoln to life with booming cannons, holographic ghosts and latex statues so lifelike the arms have freckles. It shakes visitors up and shows them all sides of the former president.
The Lincoln presented here is not the one-dimensional man most museumgoers know from the materials at the National Park Service, the National Archives or the Smithsonian Institution.
The museum, opening this month in Lincoln's hometown, shows the nation's 16th president as an awkward suitor, a grieving father and a wily politician.
It points out his changing views on slavery and the limitations of his Emancipation Proclamation. Visitors hear complaints about everything from his looks — "the Illinois ape," some people called him — to his restrictions on civil rights.
"We want to totally surround you, involve you in the emotions, in the triumphs and the tragedies of the Lincoln family and our nation," said Bob Rogers, whose company, BRC Imagination Arts, designed the museum's exhibits.
The library portion of the $145 million complex houses the world's largest collection of Lincoln documents and artifacts, from letters he wrote as a young lawyer to an original copy of the Gettysburg Address.
The museum side is geared toward the general public, and it grabs the attention of adults and children alike with myth-busting stories and special effects over 40,000 square feet, twice the size of any other presidential museum.
An introductory film uses smoke machines, vibrating seats and the roar of cannons to bring the Civil War to life while summing up both Lincoln's life and the nation's painful divisions.
Another presentation mixes a living actor with holographic images of Lincoln and Civil War battle scenes.
The four-day celebration wrapping up April 19 with the museum dedication follows nearly 25 years of effort to create a world-class institution to study Lincoln's life and explain it to the public.
The result is called a presidential library, but it isn't operated by the National Archives, like the Clinton and Reagan libraries are, and it isn't the official repository of documents from Lincoln's presidency.
The federal government agreed to provide up to $50 million, but the bulk of the money is coming from the state, which owns and operates the institution.
The library was originally scheduled to open in 2002 — Illinois Gov. George Ryan even held a "ceremonial" opening complete with fireworks and jets flying overhead — but it sat empty for two years because of problems with the heating and cooling systems. The library side finally opened in October. The museum is opening more than a year late.
People who have sneaked peaks inside say the museum was worth the wait. The holograms and rumbling seats are fun, they say, but the museum also drives home the reality of the Civil War and Lincoln's role.
"It connects first emotionally and visually, then lets you dig deeper," said David Mosena, who runs Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. "I felt the pain of this conflict and the burden that rested on him."
There are critics of that showmanship, however, and the museum's draw on resources.
Maynard Crossland resigned as head of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, saying the library complex was overshadowing other historic sites and eating up scarce dollars. "It's just a big vacuum," he said.
John Simon, a historian at Southern Illinois University, has complained bitterly about the museum's "Disneyesque" approach, particularly the life-size latex statutes.
But other scholars feel just as strongly that the museum's glitz can work with the library's scholarship to tell Lincoln's story in a new way.
"I think it really will be an important impetus to Lincoln studies and keeping the figure of Abraham Lincoln right out in front of American attention," said author Allen Guelzo.