A new library-museum delves into the president's life, with boyhood scenes, everyday insights, a re-created slave auction and other exhibits.
February 19, 2006|Fred Dickey, Special to The Times
Springfield, Ill. — FOR the last couple of generations, all U.S. presidents -- even the ones who don't move the needle on the greatness scale -- end up with grand libraries and museums.
But for 140 years, Abraham Lincoln, the man many consider the greatest U.S. president, lacked even a modest edifice that chronicled the leadership that led to freedom for millions -- and, ultimately, to his death.
After a 10-year nationwide campaign, the $115-million Lincoln museum and library opened here in April to preserve his memory and honor an apocalyptic presidency: four years that ended slavery and preserved the Union -- for which the cost was 600,000-plus lives.
Since its opening, half a million people have visited, many, like me, history buffs. We come for the same reason a Dodger fan goes to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.: This is the mountaintop of American history.
The museum is divided into two broad-themed "journeys": one depicting Lincoln's life up to his election as the 16th president and the other his White House life and prosecution of the Civil War. Both journeys employ animatronics and lifelike displays.
The 40,000 feet of display space feature brought-to-life scenes of Lincoln's boyhood, daily life in his White House and a chilling re-creation of a slave auction.
We're also given a sense of Lincoln's "other" Civil War, which was fought among his Cabinet members. The tension of those encounters is dramatized by a display of a Cabinet meeting. There sit smug Secretary of State William Seward, combative Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and ambitious Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, life-size figures frozen in the moment. At the head of the table is the patient president, more discerning than the others know.
Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" lends a modern touch to this 19th century cast in a video in which he analyzes the players and the stakes of those times.
The mood takes a sharp turn at the replica of the old State Capitol where the slain president lay in state after he was assassinated in April 1865. The sense of grief at the senseless loss is almost palpable.
Small touches give daily-life insights to the man and his family: a copy of Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address, wife Mary Todd Lincoln's music box and Lincoln's eyeglasses and briefcase.
The museum achieves a tricky balance: appealing to students on field trips as well as to serious students of history. The visitor can get a feel for Honest Abe, as his campaigners called him (or the Baboon, a favorite slur of his opponents).
The Civil War also comes through in all its grimness, no more so than in the display of how the assassination conspirators were condemned to death in a field court-martial and imprisoned in conditions that the Abu Ghraib victims would envy.
Life for Kentucky-born Lincoln was difficult, and it toughened him. He was a wily lawyer who represented "little people," but he also made money representing railroad interests, the Halliburtons of his day. Big corporations, even then, were widely accused of exploitation, and Lincoln was often their legal point man. Somehow, he managed to escape the corporate tar brush in the public mind.
The museum is a little weak on Lincoln's early and formative years. Scant attention is given to the difficulties of his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln, whose behavior escalated from difficult to erratic. Today, we would say they had a "troubled marriage," but the museum does not reflect that. Little is devoted to the nature of his self-acknowledged depression: Was he clinically, even suicidally, depressed or just moody? Totally ignored is the question raised in recent years about whether he was bisexual, which is about the space most historians think it deserves.
In fairness, though, can we expect a museum to address every little century-plus-old suspicion of the heart and mind? Museums are not built to tear people down, especially when the subject is a marble-bust deity.
In terms of logistics, the designers might have gotten a bit carried away. Considering that it's not uncommon for 3,000 visitors a day to come through during the summer, they may have tried to do too much in too little space. Even on the Wednesday morning of my October visit, the corridors and displays were crowded. The Whisper Gallery -- more a narrow hall -- features a display of editorial cartoons criticizing Lincoln's presidency and anything else about the man that seemed to invite a brickbat. In the background, recorded whispers demean him and his mission. Interesting, but as you let the crowd pull you through, the most attractive thing on the wall quickly becomes the exit sign.
To make certain I wasn't being claustrophobic, I approached the gallery guard. "Man, I'll bet this is crowded in the summer," I said. He arched his eyebrow and replied, "I should be paid double in August."
A persistent criticism of the museum is that the animatronics and lifelike displays make it too techie or Disneyish. But as with all media, museums must speak the language of their day if they want to reach the greatest audience.
Small drawbacks aside, if you enjoy American history, what's not to love?
The library, meanwhile, is 100,000 square feet and contains more material on Lincoln than anywhere else, but it is mainly for research. There are small photo displays that change regularly, but casual visitors usually peek in and return to the museum.
Within a few miles of the new museum are Lincoln sites and lore that rival the museum in appeal but on a smaller scale: Lincoln's Tomb towers amid leafy sycamores in a beautiful cemetery only a few miles away. The magnificent mausoleum is topped by a 117-foot obelisk. High above the burial chamber, the ceiling is 22-karat gold leaf. Lincoln's body is 10 feet below the floor as a result of an 1876 attempt to kidnap it.
The house that Abe and Mary and their children shared during the Springfield years is only blocks from the museum.
It is a nice but not grand two-story frame home. It's the only house Lincoln ever owned. This is where son Eddie, at not quite 4 years old, died in 1850; where Lincoln accepted the nomination for president; and from which he departed for Washington, saying: "To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything."
New Salem State Park, in the town of the same name an hour from Springfield, is where Lincoln spent some of his young adulthood. The park is a re-creation of that prairie village of the 1830s and authentically conveys not only day-to-day life in a frontier hamlet but also the sense of it, how people fared and how they managed burdensome lives. In that replica village, one sees the life full of brutal work and social isolation that underscored Lincoln's backwoods beginnings.
Two miles from New Salem is Petersburg, home of Oakland Cemetery, where Ann Rutledge is buried. She is often said to have been Lincoln's first love, but it's still not known for sure whether this is true.
In all of the small-town sites outside Springfield that I visited, I didn't see one bit of tourist schlock. In Illinois, Lincoln is serious business.
The Lincoln log
From LAX, nonstop service to Chicago, about 175 miles from Springfield, Ill., is available on United and American, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on American, US Airways, America West, Delta, United, Northwest and Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $178. From LAX to St. Louis, which is about 90 miles from Springfield, nonstop service is offered on American and Southwest, direct service (stop, no change of plane) is offered on Southwest, and connecting service is available on American, United, Southwest, Continental, Northwest, Frontier and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.
LIBRARY & MUSEUM:
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, 112 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL 62701; (217) 558-8844 or (800) 610-2094, www.alplm.org. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, open until 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays (but closed at 5 p.m. Wednesday). Tickets: $7.50 adults, $5.50 seniors (62 and older) and military and high school and college students with ID, $3.50 for those 5-15 and free for children under 5.
Within 50 miles of Springfield, several interesting places give insight to the work and times of the gangly circuit-riding lawyer who felt most at home with the farmers who laughed at his stories. Among them is New Salem State Historic Site, (217) 632-4000, www.lincolnsnewsalem.com. These sites can be found at www.lookingforlincoln.com.
TO LEARN MORE:
Springfield Ill. Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 545-7300, www.visitspringfieldillinois.com.
Illinois Bureau of Tourism, 100 W. Randolph St., Suite 3-400, Chicago, IL 60601; (800) 226-6632, www.enjoyillinois.com.
-- Fred Dickey