5:23 PM EST, January 16, 2013
Abraham Lincoln has been given many titles over the years: Rail Splitter, Great Emancipator, even, to the detriment of the undead, Vampire Hunter.
Some of these have more historical credibility than others.
But one that he's earned without question, especially recently, especially in Illinois, is Abraham Lincoln, Family Entertainer.
Looking for a quick winter getaway, my family took a ride on the Lincoln fun train recently. First, as a kind of homework, came Steven Spielberg's film about Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Lincoln. Then we finally made the trek we had talked about for years but never quite gotten around to: down to the ever-present, too easily overlooked Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield.
I know. If your kids are in middle school or older, as mine are, they have probably already been to the museum on a field trip. And it's not easy to get to Springfield, nor, truth be told, is it easy to stay in Springfield. Even sitting governors seem to prefer to spend their time in Chicago.
But getting down there is not that hard, either. And at the end of the rainbow — if you can think of Interstate Highway 55 as a rainbow — is a first-rate cultural and historical experience.
More on that in a minute. But first, the film. As a showcase for Day-Lewis, and as an attempt to stir one's blood about the highest values of the American experiment, it works wonderfully. As drama, there are rough patches, especially when soldiers take turns reciting the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln. Even if you tell me that actually happened, I'd be more inclined to believe a scene showing the 16th president staking a Transylvanian.
But with its focus on passage of the 13th Amendment in Congress, "Lincoln" is certainly among the best movies about the legislative process, and a pretty neat commentary on our own, perpetually roadblocked times. Imagine, as I couldn't help doing, the movie that would be made about the fiscal cliff negotiations: hour upon hour of almost nothing happening, an Andy Warhol film but with older, heftier actors and less distinguished oration.
Mostly, though, seeing "Lincoln" put my wife, two boys and me in the proper frame of mind for the museum, much like smelling a banana puts our dog in the proper frame of mind for begging.
The museum portion of the Presidential Library & Museum, which opened to fanfare 2005, has taken criticism for being too pop, too loaded up with tricks of the museum trade designed to make the material accessible to the broadest possible audience. Such alleged compromise risks driving hard-core enthusiasts and historians nuts.
I've had similar beefs about various museum exhibitions around Chicago, so I was eager to see how the Lincoln Museum would strike me.
The answer: It's not a problem. We spent three short hours there and could have spent more, had my 14-year-old son, who had already been once, not kept dragging me on to the next gallery.
If what you want is old-school museum, there's plenty of that, in ample wall signage to peruse, hundreds of artifacts and, always, a note about where to go to delve deeper into the topic in a particular gallery. A temporary exhibit, "To Kill and to Heal: Weapons and Medicine of the Civil War," is gloriously old school (and up until December). Civil War-era rifle is stacked above Civil War-era rifle, vaguely menacing medical device next to vaguely menacing medical device. Health care was not a signature issue of the Lincoln presidency.
A visitor could deride the museum's many interactive features as Disneyesque. But these are no Country Bear Jamborees. A hall dramatizing the debate over Lincoln's anti-slavery efforts puts you amid faces and voices of the era. Instead of the measured recitation of the historian, you get actual, raw voices, a little like cable news of the mid-19th century. It may not be intellectual, but it's vivid and closer to the way people of the time experienced the debate.
Another gallery is fascinating in conveying just how widely and viciously derided Lincoln was before the war's end. Scores, maybe hundreds, of political cartoons on the walls depict him as a secret African, a coward and so on. Whispering voices in the air back up the point.
The crowning technical achievement is "Ghosts of the Library," a video presentation that artfully plants holograms into a presidential-library set, mixing an explanation of the library's role with scenes from Lincoln history. My family is still debating whether a live actor was really part of the mix or it was all done with filmmaking trickery.
We did notice one obvious absence at the museum, though. Although Day-Lewis visited as part of his research for the "Lincoln" film, and although it was based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" book, for sale in the well-stocked bookshop, the museum had no overt tie-in to the film while the film was fresh in theaters. You did get a small admission discount if you were willing to say you had seen the movie (plus a really aggressive pitch to buy a membership).
More to the point of what is on display, an awful lot of space is given to the dresses worn by Mary Todd Lincoln and her social rivals. The dresses looked pretty much the same to me, and the combined apparent cattiness of Washington, D.C., women diminished them and, I would surmise, their roles.
A big reproduction of Lincoln's lying-in-state bed from Springfield didn't do it for me as the artifact that would sum up his death and evoke sadness (more potent were the map of his funeral train and the Ford's Theater exhibition, where "Our American Cousin" plays over the speakers and Lincoln's box is reproduced next to the area John Wilkes Booth entered from).
But then there's the nice tonic of "Ask Mr. Lincoln," a small viewing room that has former Illinois State Historian Tom Schwartz, on tape, give opinions and use quotes to demonstrate how the president would have responded to questions of today.
The young institution's overall feeling is of modernity and, sure, a simplified, bullet-point perspective, but not, to my sensibility, of dumbing-down. It delivers a lot, in an engaging manner, and whets the appetite for learning still more, which is just about the right balance for a mainstream history museum.
The layout is large in square footage but feels compact, thanks to its arrangement of galleries representing separate areas of Lincoln's life around a central square. Having a Subway as the restaurant is a letdown, but not, in Springfield, a surprise.
The bookstore is a gem, mixing old-time candy, reproductions of tools and china of the era and a very impressive selection from the extraordinarily deep catalog of Lincoln books. And it's not afraid to have fun, to risk irreverence in order to show Lincoln's continuing cultural role. My son was afraid to wear his T-shirt showing Lincoln in Cat in the Hat headgear, thinking it might come off as disrespectful. From the looks of the other shirts on sale, the staff might have asked where they could order some to sell.
And, yes, they do carry Seth Grahame-Smith's book, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter."
Twitter@StevenKJohnson'Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum'
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