Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

Fall returned today to northern Illinois after a string of summer-like days, including all weekend during our visit to Springfield and environs. In fact it nearly touched 90° F. each day, making it like a summer trip. So ducking into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in downtown Springfield on Saturday turned out to be a good way to avoid the heat.

The museum has both attracted the ire of some Lincoln scholars and others for spiking an educational venue with entertainment, while simultaneously attracting an enormous number of visitors -- reportedly more than 2 million since it opened in 2005. Someone's coming to town to see it; the Springfield MSA has a population of a little over 200,000. While Lincoln scholars are a house divided on the subject of the museum, tourists have voted with their admission-paying feet.

Much has been written about the place. A lot of interesting commentary, in fact, far above my poor power to add or detract. The museum web site itself has a lengthy list of articles, and there are these two (July 4, 2007 and July 5, 2007) by Andrew Ferguson in Slate. Roadside America, as usual, has an interesting description.

I can only speak as a middle-aged presidential history enthusiast when I say that I thought the place was... not bad. Pretty good, in fact. The subject of Lincoln is a deep well, and even the most text-skinny Lincoln museum ought to be able to teach me something, which it did, and show me some things I'd never seen before, which it also did. But the museum isn't really for me. I'm fine with a more traditional museum approach, because if I have time I'll read some text and linger over objects. Sometimes the noisy razzmatazz at this museum drove me away from an exhibit.

Still, there was much to like. The decision to use life-sized figures throughout the museum probably sticks in the craw of academics more than anything else, but the figures get your attention in a way other items do not. Sometimes they were arrayed in remarkably effective ways, especially in a re-creation of the 1862 Cabinet meeting during which President Lincoln sprung the Emancipation Proclamation on the other members ("By the way, gentlemen...") and the presidential box and its occupants at Ford's Theatre on that infamous night in 1865.

A short video called "The Civil War in Four Minutes" (One Second = One Week) was hypnotic as it depicted the ebb and flow of Union- vs. Confederate-controlled territory on an electronic map, punctuated by pops of light and sound to mark major battles, with a counter for the dead on each side spinning ever higher as the casualties mounted.

In some ways, the museum drew inspiration more from an old-fashioned vernacular approach to historical presentation than a (post)modern academic one, to put it in a way that an academic might. I thought of that standing in front of a large, semicircular painting depicting Gettysburg. At the left was a scene from the battle, Pickett's men reaching the Union lines just before they had to retreat. In the center was the burial of the dead, and on the right was Lincoln speaking to the crowd at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863.

Not the most skillful painting I've ever seen, but it evokes the place and time. I imagine that this kind of panoramic painting used to be fairly common, at least in pre-movie days. Maybe some would travel around with a circus or other show in the 1890s, say. "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! See a world-famous re-creation of the immortal Battle of Gettysburg!"

Next came a series of smaller paintings, done in a near-photorealistic style, depicting events in late 1864 and early 1865: Lincoln's re-election; the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress; Lincoln's second inauguration; Lincoln's astonishing visit to Richmond on April 4; Lincoln asking the band to play "Dixie"; the surrender of Lee at Appomattox; and Lincoln's last speech, made from a White House window on April 11. These evoke the rush of events, but also inspire dread. A sign that says "Ford's Theatre" points the way to the next room.

A room called Treasures featured a traditional display of objects with descriptive text -- and it was the only room of its kind in the museum. I liked it. Among other things, there was an effigy Lincoln doll from the election of 1860 that somehow survived being burned. I like to imagine that a little girl, not caring about politics, took a fancy to the thing and hid it. There was also a campaign biography of Lincoln, a drawing of the Wigwam (the temporary structure in Chicago in which the Republicans nominated Lincoln), a life mask of the president, and one of his stove-pipe hats. He wore a size seven and one-eighths.

The museum could have used a little more of this kind of display. Also, I'd like to have seen an entire third wing to complement the two main wings that deal with Lincoln before he was president and Lincoln while he was president, respectively. I want to see displays about Lincoln after he was president -- his apotheosis, to use a word that the museum probably would not use.

Such a wing might include montage of many the monuments and places named after him. Or a hundred depictions of him in art. Or a wall of books, each about Lincoln, because there are that many. Or continuous clips from movies and TV, including both the good and the ridiculous (remember his appearance in the original Star Trek? He died by spear that time). Or Lincoln used for commercial purposes. Or the way foreigners use Lincoln, from his statue in Parliament Square in London to Lincoln pachinko parlor paintings in Japan. (I swore I saw that; it's entirely plausible; but maybe I was dreaming.) Better yet, some of all of these.

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