How the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum went Disney.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 5 2007 7:14 AM

How To Design a Lincoln Museum

Do you feel what Lincoln felt?

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

In his new book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America, Andrew Ferguson crisscrosses the nation on a quest to understand our ongoing obsession with our lanky 16th president. In the process, he interviewed Lincoln buffs and Lincoln impersonators, historians, collectors and business gurus, and dozens of others who have built their lives around the man. Tuesday, Ferguson explained how and why the state of Illinois hired Disney-style theme-park designers to develop the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the most ambitious (and expensive) attempt to bring Lincoln to the wider public since the opening of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Today, he examines the resulting institution.  

Shortly before the museum's dedication ceremony, I got a chance to see what Bob Rogers and BRC had done with Lincoln. Already boosters were comparing the museum to the opening of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Except the ALPLM would be even better. "You go to the Lincoln Memorial, you get an icon," the museum's director told reporters. "Here you get the man."

Tom Schwartz, the state historian, showed me around the museum. Tom had been among Bob's team of experts. Like Bob, he wanted to impress upon visitors the museum's fastidious commitment to historical accuracy.

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Tom pointed out the trees that tower above Lincoln's boyhood cabin. They were made of Plexiglas and fashioned from plaster molds of real trees found in first-growth Midwestern forests—"just like those Lincoln would have known," Tom said. BRC artists had even painted singe marks on the paper leaves that hung from the limbs above the cabin's fake chimney.

Bob and the scholars he'd consulted with had decided to divide Lincoln's life into two "journeys"—a word heavy with emotional connotations nowadays, since the journeys being described are not Lincoln's movements from place to place but his own "process of personal growth." Before entering Journey One, visitors are encouraged to attend an orientation video called Lincoln's Eyes.

In Lincoln's Eyes, the curtain rises to show an actor standing before an enormous screen, and on either side of the proscenium other screens light up, flashing ever-changing images from Lincoln's life. Some multimedia effect or another is never more than a few moments away. When rains drench the prairie, a cool breeze emerges from hidden vents. The narrator mentions that young Abe was once kicked by a mule, and suddenly the seats jump with a deafening thud. The Civil War begins, and the side walls open up and cannon barrels dart out, belching sparks and real smoke rings toward the audience. Seats quake with every blast.

Actors playing Lincoln's contemporaries appear in pore-penetrating close-ups, alternately excoriating him, praising him, getting mushy and sentimental or steely-eyed and cynical. On one screen Lincoln appears with a halo; on the opposite screen he grows devil horns. Then, says the narrator, after Lincoln was shot (BANG!) "he became a legend, and we've never seen him clearly since." The implication is that here you'll be able to see him clearly at last. Even better, the narrator says: "You may even see a little of yourself in Lincoln's eyes."

The exit doors swung open and Tom led me into Journey One, through Lincoln's boyhood cabin and eventually into the living room of a friend's house, where we find him courting plump Mary on a horsehair divan. Journey Two likewise emphasizes Lincoln's home life and personal traumas. The first room displays a semicircle of fancy dresses worn by Mary and by the grande dames of Washington society who condescended to her. In the White House Cabinet room, dummies dressed as Lincoln's advisers react histrionically—some with arms upraised, others with head in hand—as he reads them the Emancipation Proclamation. We then pass through a "Hall of Sorrows," where Mary sits in mourning for their dead son Willie, and into the White House kitchen, getting a glimpse of the life led by Lincoln's servants.

"From here to the end," Tom said as we emerged from the kitchen, "it's sort of a race to the finish. Of necessity we've had to compress a great many events into a limited space." Most of the compressed events have to do with the Civil War, represented in several extravagant murals and a roomful of touch screens. After a mock-up of Ford's Theatre, Journey Two closes in a huge, candlelit chamber where Lincoln's coffin rests in a cloud of white lilies. Music plays everywhere and always—great orchestral washes of sound, as in a Disney romance, then quieting to Olde Tyme zither and fiddle tunes, like the sound track from a Ken Burns documentary. Bob had designed the journeys so that the tone would shift abruptly from room to room, to "reset the senses" of visitors every couple of minutes, lest they grow bored. The museum is the narcoleptic's cure.

On our way out, passing through Museum Plaza, we ran into Bob with a phalanx of assistants in train. They'd been doing a final walk-through before the Grand Opening. Bob seemed to be breathing quickly. "We need to talk," he said to Tom. "I need you to stand in these rooms with me," Bob said, "and I need to tell you why this doesn't need to be changed. … I will show you why this is just fine the way it is. It is really time to do the final clampdown. It is time for this to stop."

*

It turned out that Richard Norton Smith, Tom's boss and the museum's director, had been busily writing more wall text and posting it in the exhibits. "Hey, the man's the director," Bob said that night with a shrug, when we met for dinner. "Whatever he wants, right? He wants more plaque copy, he gets more plaque copy. Sure. Fine."

Bob asked me how I'd liked Lincoln's Eyes, and I told him I was surprised at the range of views expressed about Lincoln. He'd been called a racist, a war criminal  ...

"Damn straight," he said, with evident pride. "We're not in the business of shoving anything down anybody's throats. After six years of living with Abraham Lincoln, I can give him to you any way you want, cold or hot, jazz or classical. I can give you scandalous Lincoln, conservative Lincoln, liberal Lincoln, racist Lincoln, Lincoln over easy or Lincoln scrambled."

Bob said there had been instances where he and the scholars hadn't always seen eye to eye—the Emancipation Proclamation Room, for example, the immersive exhibit where Lincoln is shown reading the proclamation to his Cabinet. The moment was first depicted in 1864, two years after the event, in a staged, formal painting by Francis Carpenter. In Carpenter's rendering, the Cabinet members are posed stiffly around a table. It's an idealized version of a scene that the painter, his audience, and the subjects themselves knew was fraught with significance for the country's future—and it's exactly what Bob wanted to get away from.

"Some of our scholars said, Let's just do the Carpenter painting. Very dignified. Everybody's looking very important—and very Victorian and artificial and false. We said, 'Bo-ring!' " The scene Bob and his designers conceived bears no resemblance to Carpenter's version. The silicone Lincoln stands dejected, looking the downside of bipolar, and the Cabinet members are arrayed in various attitudes of outrage or distress.

"They're not standing there with their hands in their shirts in some gallant pose. They look like they've been there awhile. The place is a mess—papers everywhere. Their hair's a mess. And you can read everyone's mind. And everybody's got a different spin. One guy's going, 'Oh shiiiiiit.' Another guy's got a map, I think it's what's-his-name, Blair"—Montgomery Blair, Lincoln's postmaster general—"he's pointing to Kentucky, he's going, 'You'll lose Kentucky! You lose Kentucky, you split the country in half!' … It's so real, you can almost smell the body odor.