On Sunday, Oct. 11 this year my family and I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL (see overview of the trip here). The ALPLM complex is located only a few blocks from our hotel, and comes under the purview of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Due to budget restrictions, the Library is not open on weekends: that’s why “Library and” is parenthetical in the title of this post. Here are shots of the complex (buff buildings) from our hotel room, my son and me outside the museum, and the then closed library across the street (click on the thumbs for a larger image):
Inside the museum we paid our fees ($22 for two adults and one 11 year-old) and, with recommendations from Mike Kienzler in hand, started on our journey.
Basically, the museum consists of an open receiving area, a theater, two “journeys” which center on the two phases of Lincoln’s life, an artifact display (Treasures Gallery), a play area for kids (Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic), and the Ghosts of the Library program. Photos are permitted only in the receiving area (Plaza) and Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic. Museum security is very strict with photo limitations – don’t press your luck. There’s also a museum store, a cafeteria, and an Illinois Gallery.
This museum is not what comes to mind when old fogies like me think of museums. The trend today is away from stuff – artifacts - and towards multi-media experiences, lots of 3-D models, recreations, etc; more or less the telling of a story with fewer limitations on how it’s told. It will work for some folks, and won’t work for others. It is what it is. Frankly, I didn’t mind; my kid loved it, and there were some very cool artifacts in the Treasures Gallery and sprinkled along the Journeys for the over 40 crowd. To me, the rubber dummies looked like rubber dummies. But maybe my mind’s eye isn’t what it used to be. Younger folks, the ones who will be taking their kids to this museum some day, are a lot better at believing, and so are maybe more receptive to the influence of this kind of approach.
In the Plaza, we were first greeted by lifelike rubber models of the Lincoln family as they may have appeared prior to leaving Springfield for the White House. This is a very popular photo stop, as everyone wants to get their picture with the Lincolns. While the museum has staff there who are happy to take pictures on your camera, it’s hit or miss on whether or not they know how to use it. All of the first set of us with the “dummies” came out blurry, but we had another staff member take the pictures later and they turned out OK.
Taking Mike’s advice we started with the film Lincoln’s Eyes. This, like the rest of the museum, is not a traditional approach, but a multimedia enhanced film guided by an artist commissioned to paint the portrait of Lincoln that is posted outside the theater. Whether this is the real artist, or an actor portraying a real or fictional artist isn’t quite clear to me. I got that kind of feeling more than once in the museum. Below are images of the portrait and of the film’s poster.
Next we took the first of the two Journeys, Pre-Presidential Years. The tour starts off in a recreation of what a teenaged Abe’s log cabin may have resembled. We proceeded past a lifelike depiction of a slave auction, which Abe may or may not have seen in New Orleans and through the New Salem store. One of my wife’s favorites was the models of Lincoln, Willie and Tad in his law office where mayhem ruled. My son loved the TV production panel, with Tim Russert commenting on the candidates of 1860 with modern graphics, and paid political announcements – we sat through it twice. Below are photos of the lifelike young Lincoln and his cabin, which is accessed off the plaza.
Then it was on to Journey Two, The White House Years. This tour is accessed off the plaza via the south portico of the White House, where we were greeted by Mary Lincoln and a display of dresses – reproductions - of prominent ladies of the era. Then we walked through the Whispering Gallery, with asymmetrical framings of many of the anti-Lincoln cartoons produced during his presidency, accompanied by whispered criticisms of him over the sound system, which moved through the years as we walked. Then came a touching tableau of the Lincoln’s vigil over the dying Willie on February 5, 1862. While muffled sounds of revelers and music can be heard from downstairs, Lincoln stands in the doorway of his son’s room, one of Willie’s dolls dangling forlornly from his father’s hand, while Mary hovers over the bedridden boy. Two weeks later Willie was dead, and we find Mary in mourning, sitting in a White House alcove in the dark, rain pelting on the windows.
On a stroll through the White House kitchen we heard the staff scuttlebutt, including speculation about Mary’s sanity. Lincoln’s office is arranged as it may have appeared when Lincoln revealed plans for an Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, with attendant rubber sculptures of each member. The wall and floor coverings are brightly colored and ornate, as were those in the Lincoln Home we visited the day before – I think we imagine Victorian furnishings less vibrantly, but I’ll accept that the museum did its homework. On exiting the room we could hear criticisms of the EP, this time with accompanying holographic, hectoring images, then we were led into a Hall of Shadows where AL ultimately signs the document.
The next few presentations depict the progress of the war, including an expansive Gettysburg mural. My son’s favorite was a time-lapse map of The Civil War in Four Minutes. As various battles are highlighted, the casualties mount in the lower right corner. He watched it twice. Nearby is a wall of dozens of photos, with touchscreens to access background on each one.
A tableau of Ford’s Theater frames the assassination, and another shows Lincoln lying in state in Springfield in the Capitol’s Hall of Representatives. Lincoln’s casket was open for viewing in “real life” – the catafalque in the tableau is so high, and the casket inclined to such an extent that I couldn’t see if this detail was recreated. The final exhibit explores efforts of American’s to “Hold On” to Lincoln by collecting items he may have owned or touched.
Here are a few images of the entry to Journey Two. A few figures are hanging out near the entry: John Wilkes Booth, George McClellan, U. S. Grant, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Check out the juxtaposition of McClellan and Grant: Mac imperious, properly holding cup and saucer, little finger extended, looking down on HUG; Grant gripping his cup ham-handedly, bothersome and useless saucer at his side, looking like he’s set to kick Mac’s ass. I felt compelled to step between them. (Funny – at 5’11″ I’m taller than both these guys, but it doesn’t appear that way in the photo. Am I shrinking?)
[Every narrative of a good guy needs a bad guy. I don't need to go into the problems I have with narrative history and its limitations, because I already talked about them here. So let's accept the validity of a narrative format and go from there. It's obvious who the good guy is going to be at the ALPLM. And there's certainly no shortage of bad guys in AL's story. Stephen Douglas, arguably. The Radical Republicans. Rabid Yankee abolitionists. Fire-eating southern separatists. Newspaper editors nationwide. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg, Nathan B. Forrest et al. The Confederate Congress. John Wilkes Booth. A nut-job wife. All are likely candidates. But all, if they are even mentioned in the displays or over the sound system of the museum, fade to static background noise behind the overarching presence of the great evil of AL's life: you guessed it, George B. McClellan. In Lincoln's Eyes, he even appears as one of the divisive panels pulling the quilt of the nation apart. What are the servants in the recreated kitchen of the White House overheard complaining about? The limited reach of the Emancipation Proclamation? The slaughter of U. S. Colored Troops? No, of course not. It's that traitor McClellan. All of this is set up by the depiction of Mac outside the entrance to the White House. Ah well, what are you gonna do? Gotta roll with it.]
After Journey Two we took in Ghosts of the Library. Don’t miss this. It’s a special effects wonder. I think I figured out how they did it at the end, but still I’m not positive and nobody’s talking. An actor (or is it?) describes to the audience the importance of documents and artifacts in learning about the past. Are the items we can see during the program actual artifacts and documents? Probably not, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s the message that counts. But damn, this is one cool show. I didn’t see a single fidgety kid in the audience.
The Treasures Gallery will appeal to traditionalists. There are a number of swell items in here, none sweller than one of Lincoln’s stovepipe hats, complete with worn fingerprints on the right side outer and inner brim, where he would grip it to tip the hat to passers by.
The last stops on our tour were Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic and the Museum Store. The Attic is really a glorified play area, though I was glad to see that my son – who will never get a job cleaning giraffe ears - is at least taller than Willie at the same age. It also has a doll house version of the Lincoln Home my wife really liked.
The gift shop I thought had a particularly poor selection of caps and shirts. In fact, the tee shirts we did end up buying were clearance items we found the next day on a quick return trip – after all the discounts were taken, they were $4 each!
All-in-all, the ALPLM is a must see. If you’re old (like me), it may not be what you’re used to, and folks do hate change sometimes. But I watched the younger patrons, and they seemed pretty immersed in the whole experience. Take an open mind with you. I give it two thumbs up, and hope to get a chance to see the library at some point.