The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield makes for an emotional visit. Opened only in 2005, it was created as one of the first “experience museums” by BRC Imagination Arts, a production agency that is more Disney than history. The museum “combines priceless historical artifacts with BRC’s innovative, contemporary storytelling technologies.”
This is no old-fashioned library full of artifacts behind glass with long fading labels. Here, life sized figures help tell the history and “sound walls” draw you in to scenes of the president’s life.
You begin walking through a replica of the one room log cabin where his family lived, a young Abe figure teaching himself to ready by the dying embers of the fireplace. In the next space, a painting of the barge he built as a young man shows him earning money taking people and product to and from New Orleans, where he first witnessed slave auctions. You learn of his first girlfriend who died of typhoid fever and then you see him courting Mary Todd, followed by a scene of his law office where his young sons often played while dad was working. The room shows Abe leaning back in a chair reading, the boys throwing ink wells across the room and jumping on desks, and the sound of happy youngsters fills the room.
Life-sized figures of the family stand in front of the White House and we are welcomed in by Mary, who was apparently an emotional hostess. She’s surrounded by other society women of DC, the beautiful dresses of women of whom she was jealous. The “whisper wall” is filled with political cartoons of the new president and the voices of his distractors. The Civil War in 4 Minutes is a large electronic map with lights flashing where a battle took place and a running count of the dead. Soldiers of both sides are represented by uniforms and stories of their service in the war. Hundreds of framed photos hang in a Civil War gallery with touch screen descriptions of each. The figures of Lincoln and his cabinet sit around a table discussing his proposed Emancipation Proclamation. And finally, the fatal scene at Ford’s Theatre and a replica of Lincoln’s coffin lying in state in Springfield.
Two 4-D movies with holographic figures are well done, one of which introduces the library across the street which houses the president’s papers and much Lincolniana. Very few artifacts are on display here; the website says much is in other museums.
Lincoln’s library and museum are not part of the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA) The Presidential Libraries Act was officially enacted in 1955 by President Eisenhower after having been proposed by FDR. NARA is charged with preserving the history and materials of presidents starting with Hoover. Lincoln’s are operated under the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and is partially supported through by the State of Illinois and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. Many earlier presidents have libraries or museums, but they are either state or privately funded.
The Lincoln museum’s website claims that it is the most visited of all presidential libraries. See for yourself.