This year marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, so a drive over to Springfield to see the various Lincoln-associated historical sites may well be a good way to spend some time this summer.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is an odd place, no matter how mainstream its creators intended for it to be. On the one hand there is an atmosphere of reverence, so much so that you almost expect to be asked to remove your shoes and light joss sticks. On the other hand there is the pop-tech gee-whiz Disney aspect, that, as you can imagine, pulls in a very different direction than the quasi-religious awe that is also encouraged. I liked the place, though, and think that the attempt to combine the two influences works well most of the time. And even when it doesn’t, what the heck, at the least you learn a little history.
The central area to which you enter seemed a little sterile to me, but this is made up for by the wax figures of the Lincoln family and others. I myself had my picture taken with John Wilkes Booth (the quiet type as it turns out), though I intend to tell people it’s Edgar Allen Poe. (See photo to the right; note: that’s not the author of this article.)
The museum runs two productions in two theaters on a continual basis. The first production, “The Ghost of the Library,” was unfortunately preceded by a boring pre-recorded talk by a museum official. But once the show started it was quite entertaining. I don’t want to give away the plot or any of the high-tech secrets, but let me just say that between this production and the other one, the use of smoke and mirrors was more than metaphorical. But the production was fun and educational, too, in the sense that it, like so much of the museum, attempts to make history personal to encourage an interest in it. One thing that was strange was that the whole performance seemed pre-recorded and the voice of the one live actor dubbed. I suppose I should say I only suspect it, but the actor was a very skinny guy whose voice box could barely support a squeak, let alone the orotund tones that poured from the speaker. I’m not complaining about the performance, I’m more concerned for the actor; lip-synching the same few minutes of dialogue God knows how many times a day must be a whole circle of “Actor’s Hell.”
Anyway, the other production has no actors at all, being sheer spectacle, but it has the same educational virtues as the first show. “Lincoln’s Eyes” is a brief biography of the president that uses amusement park techniques to take you on a short ride through Lincoln’s life. I liked it (especially the cannons) and found it unexpectedly moving.
As for the rest of the museum, there’s really too much for one person to take in on one trip. One favorite of mine is the section showing contemporary cartoon takes on Lincoln. Among other things, he is portrayed as a monkey, a Scotsman, a giant, a devil, a frightened dog, a Roman emperor, a blood-thirsty killer, and a circus clown. The “Civil war in 4 minutes” is fascinating, especially if you like maps, and the election of 1860 is presented as a modern, media-driven campaign.
There is an extensive gift shop, as is to be expected, which has a kind of book store feel to it. As you can imagine there is plenty of merchandise to choose from, including Lincoln beards, ball point quill pens, and, for the thirsty, Lincoln bottled water. Before you leave, though, with armloads of booty, you might check out the wall that contains the 200th birthday cards from kids. My favorite simply said, “You rock!” Some of our own school kids are represented there: The Fighting Illini basketball team all signed a basketball that read, “Happy Birthday Abe.”