How To Design a Lincoln Museum

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 4 2007 8:26 AM

How To Design a Lincoln Museum

Step 1: Ask Disney for advice. Step 2: Build a roller coaster?

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. In today's excerpt, Ferguson explains 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. Thursday, he'll examine the resulting institution. 

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Bob Rogers started the Bob Rogers Company in 1981. Today, BRC employs more than 100 animators, set designers, writers, makeup specialists, carpenters, and electricians to dream up and build exhibits for Knott's Berry Farm, Universal Studios, the Kennedy Space Center, the Museum of Texas History, and dozens of other clients. Bob and BRC move effortlessly between the world of theme parks and the world of museums.

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"There's not a big difference between the two anymore," he said. "The two worlds are coming together, and we've positioned ourselves right where they intersect."

Bob is a colossus in his field—his firm is booked years in advance—in large part because he saw that American museums had long been designed for an audience that was dying off. Traditional exhibits were text-oriented, Bob saw, "covered in clouds of words" printed on wall plaques. They "buried dead stuff in glass boxes and lined the boxes up in dull, empty rooms."

Bob understood that today's audiences, weaned on TV and sozzled by video games, are subverbal. They require constant stimulation. This is particularly true of young people, Bob said, and in designing the Lincoln museum he wanted to reach young people above all—9- and 10-year-olds, up to 13- and 14-year-olds. Exhibits therefore had to draw in the visitor, rather than just passing along information. The museum had to be fun.

"Weren't you ever worried about dumbing Lincoln down?" I once asked him.

Bob sat back in his chair and looked at me for several seconds in silence.

 "I don't understand that 'dumbing down,' " he said. "You can do a lot worse than aim at today's seventh-grader. Seventh-graders are damn smart these days. They are the toughest crowd there is. … The way they process information in a digital age—it's incredible, beyond anything you or I can do."

Notwithstanding this intelligence—this dazzling capacity for processing information—Bob felt the way to reach these young savants was "through the heart." He said: "You lead with the emotions rather than the intellect. And remember, it's not just any old emotion—the emotion they feel is the one we want them to feel. With Lincoln, we are hooking them into a specific cascade of emotions. Then, if they want to follow up, they can find the intellectual part, read a wall plaque or buy a book or whatever." He called this strategy "emotional engineering"—a way of insinuating knowledge into people who, on their own, would have no interest in it.

"That's the first thing, emotion over intellect. The second is, you do the visual rather than the verbal. You'll notice, when you experience this museum, every scene plays totally visual. The communication comes through what you see. Example: You know what a great movie is? A great movie is when you can see it on an airplane without buying the headset, and you still get about 70 percent of what's going on. Without hearing a word. That's what we've done with Lincoln."

And it was a point of pride to Bob that the information he conveyed about Lincoln would be absolutely unimpeachable—"One hundred percent scholarly accurate."

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Bob's first step on the Lincoln project was to invite an assortment of Lincoln scholars to a series of "brainstorming sessions" in Springfield. The Lincoln scholars gathered at conference tables covered in butcher paper, with a box of crayons placed at each setting. "We wanted to loosen them up, get them in touch with that inner child," Bob said.

Some of the attendees were taken aback by the New Age accessories. Yet by now even scholars have learned that contemporary customs will require them to act like children more often than they'd like, as a means of "breaking down barriers" and "facilitating dialogue"—loosening up. A team of BRC staffers ran them through a series of team-building exercises. One exercise was called "Entry Points." Scholars were asked to dig deep into their childhoods and visualize the occasion when they first became enamored with the study of history, and then, of course, to share their experiences with their colleagues. Now and then, Bob said, the sessions grew quite emotional. For another exercise, the staffers emptied the tourist brochure racks at local hotels. "This is your competition," the staffers explained, passing around touts for waterslides, amusement parks, and adventure camps. "See if you can beat it." Gripping their crayons, the scholars designed brochures of their own.

They loosened up. The participants were briefly taken, for example, with the thought of a Lincoln roller coaster. "Lincoln had a lot of highs and lows in his life," Bob said. "He was bipolar, right?" At the peak of the roller coaster, riders might see Lincoln telling funny stories; at the low points they might see him looking gloomily out the window of his White House office, with wounded soldiers in the distance. "Back and forth, up and down, from war casualties to jokes," Bob said. But the idea was soon discarded. "Too out there," said Bob.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.