There’s been a lot of buzz up here in Chicago about the recent opening of the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library/Museum down in Springfield. All the local news outlets have had correspondents (sometimes even sending in their top-tiered evening anchors) covering the grand opening, interviewing folks like Senator Dick Durbin and the museum’s director, the puckish Presidential historian, Richard Norton Smith. The viewers are given cursory tours of the museum that choose to focus not on the impressive gathering of over 12,000 Lincoln documents but rather the dozens of life-size rubber Lincoln’s that dot the museum and depict iconic scenes from his life. Also of interest to the local news is the Imagineering nature of many of the museum’s exhibits, including a theatrical presentation where a real-life actor interacts with a holographic Lincoln. Such displays are not without their critics, with jowl drooping college professors put before the camera’s to berate the museum’s emphasizing of glitz and dehumanizing of history. As one professor noted, “I call it 6 Flags Over Lincoln.”
The schoolmarm in me (who, I like to sometimes imagine, lives in a little house on the prairie, wears fetching bonnets and is friendly with Laura and Almonzo Wilder) shares the concerns of these droopy pedagogues, but at the same time I loathe the musty, oftentimes sterile feel of too many of our nation’s museums where history feels quarantined. One of my favorite museum going experiences over the last few years was the fantastic multi-media exhibit, The Road To Revolution, located in the Minute Man Visitor Cener (all part of Minute Man National Historical Park) in Concord, Massachusetts. Its roughly 20 minutes of Imagineering does a wonderful job telling the story of the momentous and calamitous events of April 19th, 1775 in a way that’s both visually exciting and historically vigorous. As the inculcating Richard Norton Smith has reminded those newscasters quick to ask him about his museum’s critics, “Any great story has to be told on multiple levels.”
I should also point out and urge, if ever you find yourself at the park, that you walk the awesome Battle Road Trail. Not only is it simply a nice woodsy walk, it also practically trembles with our nation’s history and comes equipped with numerous brass historical plaques for you to peruse and gain context. It’s pretty awesome.
So Cathy and I plan on making a trip down to Springfield sometime this summer to check out the new Lincoln museum. Recognizing that I’m woefully ignorant of Lincoln’s biography other then the obvious corn-fed basics and what I recall from reading Gore Vidal’s beautiful novel, I’m looking forward to reading one of the many dormant books on my shelves, David Herbert Donald’s, Lincoln. Having read this (and, ideally, some of Lincoln’s own writings) I’ll get to savor both the deeper historical context and psychological shadings of the man while enjoying frequent rides on the Mary Todd Demon Drop.