Sunday, April 17, 2005

A new museum!

I can't wait.   I must go.  

Planning a trip to Springfield, IL for sometime this summer.  It was on CBS Sunday Morning.                                        

               ~Bringing Lincoln Alive~
  "What we're trying to do here is…make…history accessible. You don't dumb anything down. You have…rigorous intellectual standards, but you then make it accessible to a (wide) audience."  Museum Director Richard Norton Smith


The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, its Web site asserts, "will not only preserve history – it will make history, by enabling millions of visitors from around the world to experience the Lincoln story in its entirety, as nowhere else."

The museum portion of the 200,000 square foot complex in downtown Springfield, Ill. contains 46,000 square feet of permanent exhibits – double the size of those at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, until now the nation's largest, the Web site continues.

The library opened in mid-October. The museum welcomed visitors for the first time this weekend, and will be officially dedicated Tuesday. 
The facility's goal, simply put, is to bring history alive.

"Combining impeccable scholarship with brilliant showmanship," the Web site continues, "the new museum's permanent exhibit galleries carry visitors on twin journeys from a crude, overcrowded Indiana cabin to Ford's Theater and a reproduction of the House Chamber in the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln's flag-draped casket lies in state.

"Along the way, (visitors are) treated to a 250 seat multi-stage and screen presentation, "Lincoln's Eyes"; a stunning holographic theater, "Ghosts of the Library," bringing Lincoln documents and artifacts, literally, to life; a Treasures Gallery housing icons like the Gettysburg Address; and a separate children's area called "Mrs. Lincoln's Attic."
In one exhibit, a voice from a bygone era can be heard saying, "Mr. Lincoln, signing that emancipation proclamation will dishonor our founding fathers and violate the constitution that you swore to uphold."

"Lincoln may be 6 foot 4, but he's a dwarf in mind," another voice says.

"Right when we need a smart one, we get this apple-knocker Lincoln," yet another voice chimes in.

And the $115 facility is "emphatically not your typical museum," reports Bowers.

She says it's "pulling out all the stops" – even including simulated television coverage, complete with commercials, of the presidential campaign of 1860.

Says one simulated ad: "Union: The founding fathers created it, our forefathers shed their blood to defend, and now one man, and only one man can preserve it -- Abraham Lincoln."

A multimedia presentation in a holographic theater with a live actor introduces Lincoln's story to visitors.

Behind all of the gee-whiz special effects is a very significant story, says Richard Norton Smith, the museum's director, who wants to excite people about Lincoln's amazing story.

"We live in a historically illiterate culture," he laments.

So the museum takes us on the journey through Lincoln's life -- from his hard, early days as a self-taught frontiersman in an Indiana log cabin, and grocery store clerk in New Salem, Ill., to later when, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he engaged in the tough national debate over slavery that ripped the country apart.
  "What we're trying to do here is to make that history accessible," Smith explains. "You don't dumb anything down. You have intellectual -- rigorous intellectual standards, but you then make it accessible to a (wide) audience."

For instance, one presentation on slavery focuses not on the physical brutality, but the psychological torture of ripping slave families apart.

Says Smith: "It's a kind of 'in your face' history. I mean, it's fascinating to watch people walk around that corner and be confronted with full horror of -- the institution of slavery, just as Lincoln was way back in 1828.

"History should affect people. History should affect people not only intellectually, but emotionally. It should get them in the gut as well as the cranium."

Bowers shows that there's a softer side, too, with Lincoln seen courting his future wife Mary, and then later, wonder at his babysitting skills.

"This is the 1850s," Smith says in one exhibit. "We're in the Lincoln-Herndon law office in downtown Springfield. …The Lincolns were very indulgent. Quite frankly, most people in Springfield thought they spoiled their kids rotten.

"On Sunday mornings, Mary would go to church -- Lincoln would come to work -- if you'd call that work -- and he would bring the boys. And the boys would raise hell."

And Lincoln would read the paper.

"This is so typical of a man babysitting, let me tell you," Bowers laughed.

"Well, see, it's timeless," Smith agreed.
  Of course, Bowers observes, Lincoln's timeless words are on display too, such as one of the original handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address.

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," is its famous beginning.

"People weep when they read this. It's one of those seminal documents in the history of our nation. …Everyone continues to still be moved by the words," says Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian making sure the history presented in the facility is accurate.

"We've had top scholars involved in this to keep us honest, to provide the most up to date information."

It may be hard to believe, but Springfield, Lincoln's home for so many years, never had a museum dedicated to his story.

Sure, there's his actual home, his law office, even his tomb.

Why now? Why did this take so long, Bowers wondered.

"Well, about 25 years ago, the question was raised, 'Why is all this stuff locked away in a vault?' " Smith responded.

The Lincoln presidential museum started with a collection in the basement of the
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

And now, donations of new artifacts have been coming into the museum's archives from people who feel a personal connection to Lincoln.

"They understand the importance of their family connection to the Lincoln story," Schwartz points out.

From a house in Connecticut, Alice Colonna has sent in objects that were handed down through her family: "My great-grandfather was Robert Lincoln's law partner."

Colonna got a pendant from Lincoln's only great-granddaughter, Mary Lincoln Beckwith.

"She told me," Colonna remarks, "that Abraham Lincoln put it around his wife's neck, the chain, and said, 'With this heart, I give you my heart.' "

Colonna also got other family mementoes, including "a locket that belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln. She had a picture of Abraham Lincoln (in it), and her younger son, Willie.
  Willie's death is, Bowers says, one of the most moving sights in the museum.

"You're standing in the second floor bedroom of Willie Lincoln," Smith explains. "It's February 5th, 1862, and through the doors you can hear music coming from the East Room downstairs.And, this should be a night of unmitigated triumph, particularly for Mary Lincoln…and sadly, at that very moment -- their 11 year old son, Willie -- who has been ill for several days, takes a turn for the worse. It is a heartbreaking scene."

Willie's death unhinged Mary Lincoln, who ultimately would lose three of her four sons in her lifetime.

But it's Lincoln's political legacy that the museum really tries to capture.

"One thing about Lincoln," Smith says, "is that he's the greatest politician who ever lived in the White House."

This is the president who finally ended slavery in America, and preserved the union through the nation's bloodiest war ever.

"And in the end," Smith stresses, "a man for whom politics wasn't about personal advancement -- it became personal sacrifice."

The pain etched in Lincoln's face is plain in displayed photographs taken over the years of the Civil War, as each new casualty report clearly took a personal toll.

"You can see literally aging before your eyes," Bowers says.

"You can," Smith agrees. "We talk about the Civil War in terms of the toll of hundreds of thousands. This is the toll that war took on one face from 1860 to 1865."

Almost the only smile you see is this image of Mary Todd Lincoln enjoying a rare moment with her husband at Ford's Theater, as assassin John Wilkes Booth lurks in the background.
  "Lincoln's death touched off an extraordinary pageant of grief," Smith says.

For him, the whole point is to feel history. Smith continues: "He is at the centerpiece of the American passion play. This is -- this country literally made war upon itself -- for transcendent moral reasons -- the meaning of democracy -- the meaning of self-government, and ultimately the worth of every individual."

"And we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth," Lincoln is seen saying in one exhibit – more famous words from the Gettysburg Address.

And for those who think the museum's presentations are over the top: "That's the age-old battle, I suppose, between the snobs and the people," Smith chuckles.

"And, this is a museum for the people, which is what Lincoln would've wanted, don't you think? Bowers asks.

"Of the people, by the people, and for the people," Smith reminds her.

"Touché!" Bowers laughed.

"When you walk out of here, you not only know Abraham Lincoln a whole lot better but, if we've done our job right, you may know yourself a little bit better," Smith concluded.


djzgirl71 said...

That sounds cool.  I went there for a field trip as a child and loved seeing his house and the museums!  I grew up in Illinois so it was a real treat when I got to go to Springfield!!!


redbaranjj said...

Now that sounds really cool!  Hmmm...I must talk to Jim about taking a drive down there this summer!  That sounds really interesting.  Thanks for the info!!

quartrlyfecrysis said...

that sounds awesome.  i love how it said on Sunday morning's he'd babysit and the kids would raise hell while he read the paper.  that's chris, but with an x-box!