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. 

The first Abraham Lincoln you meet at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is not monumental but life-size, as all newly made Lincolns are, and he's posed with his family, wife Mary and sons Robert, Tad, and Willie. This is a homey Lincoln—Lincoln the family man. He is dressed in real clothes—black frock coat, square-toed boots—and underneath he is made of rubber.

Rubber is the layman's term. Technically, he's a "polymer blend," a sculpted slab of blubbery foam coated in fiberglass and covered with a silicone skin that's been tinted to a ruddy hue. His hair is a mixture of human and synthetic hair. His face isn't a precise, painstaking re-creation of the face you see in photographs; the nose is a millimeter too long and the lower lip a trifle too pendulous. The eyes are brighter but less humorous. Each feature has been exaggerated to a degree that's just barely perceptible, for a cartoonish effect.

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But it's a face you've seen before, and if you're among the 98 percent of Americans who have ever spent a day in Orlando, Fla., or Anaheim, Calif., you might suddenly remember where. Springfield's new-generation Lincoln, standing with wife and kids in the Museum Plaza, is a dead ringer for the President Lincoln in Walt Disney's Hall of Presidents.

This odd revelation spreads as you move along through the museum, which opened in Springfield, Ill., in 2005. An impression of Disney—maybe a Disney aesthetic is the better way to say it—pops up everywhere. Beyond the Lincoln family, to your left, is a life-size mock-up of Lincoln's boyhood cabin in Indiana, against an idyllic woodland backdrop that might have been lifted from Disney's Pocahontas. Later, Mary Lincoln reappears, as plump and apple-cheeked as the fairy Flora in Cinderella. Suddenly we come upon a corridor where the walls are set at disorienting angles and whispers rise creepily from hidden speakers—as spooky as the Haunted Mansion.

Cute and chilling and sad and chipper—and fun!—and never, not for a moment, more realistic than an animated movie. Unless a visitor was prepared for it, he might be stunned to find such a style throughout the most important Lincoln tribute to be built in 80 years. How did the ALPLM get this way?

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The story of how Lincoln entered the era of fun begins in 1981, and it begins with Julie Cellini—the woman whose perseverance was the one indispensable element in the creation of the ALPLM. When she was a local reporter covering politics in the late 1960s, she met a young city councilman named William Cellini. "Springfield has always been a city of young men on the make," she told me over lunch one day. "Guys come here to get their card punched. Always have. Lincoln was one of them. And I married one."

Over the years, Cellini became the most powerful lobbyist in Illinois, and Mrs. Cellini, having left her job as a reporter, began volunteering, at a very high level. She'd always had an interest in state history in general and Lincoln in particular, so in 1981 the governor appointed her a trustee of the Illinois State Historical Library. The library's collection of Lincolniana—47,000 letters and manuscripts and 2,000 artifacts, a collection bigger than the Lincoln holdings of the National Archives, the National Park Service, and the Smithsonian Institution combined—was housed underground, in a renovated parking garage dug below the old state Capitol building. Even by state government standards—even by Illinois state government standards—the facility was a sty, unventilated, and poorly maintained. Stacks of dusty boxes teetered in the hallways, leaves gathered in drifts by the exit doors, exotic fungi sprouted in the corners. "It was awful," she said. "Filthy. And then—then I saw the collection."

"I couldn't believe the state of Illinois owned this stuff," she said. "There was Mary Todd Lincoln's wedding dress, their marriage certificate, Tad's toy cannon—I had no idea. Then Jim hands me a pair of white gloves. I say, 'What do I need these for?' He says, 'I'm about to hand you the Gettysburg Address.' And there it was, right in my hands! … I said, 'Everybody needs to see this. We need to open this stuff up.' "

Julie Cellini's original idea was to build a new, climate-controlled library to protect the Lincoln collection; adjacent to it would be a Lincoln Heritage Center, to display the library's treasures to the public. Yet when the legislature, as a kind of down payment on the new facility, allocated $75,000 for a new case to display the Gettysburg Address, Cellini got permission to use the money to develop preliminary drawings for a much grander facility—a place built not merely to serve Lincoln lovers who were coming to Springfield but to attract tourists to Springfield who might not otherwise have come.

But what would the new Lincoln project be, aside from large and expensive and delightful enough to bring tourists in to stay awhile? With her committee,  Cellini traveled the country, from Knott's Berry Farm to Graceland, fact-finding. "We had an amazing concept—library and museum together. And we had the best guy in the world: Lincoln. What we needed were the best storytellers to do justice to both the concept and the guy." The best storytellers in the world, Mrs. Cellini concluded, were Walt Disney's.

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Through her political contacts, Cellini arranged for Disney "imagineers," as the theme-park designers are called, to come to Springfield. They scouted the sites, drew preliminary sketches, and made economic projections for "heads on beds." She kept Disney's involvement with Lincoln "under the radar," as she put it. Only a few years before, Disney's plan for a historical theme park in rural Virginia, outside the Washington Beltway, had been canceled, at great expense to Disney, after appalled historians joined in a nationwide protest—a kind of scholarly upchuck. "We simply could not have sold this project—to anybody, politicians, Lincoln people, scholars—if it had been a quote-unquote Disney project," she said.

When at last the state put its Lincoln contract out for bid, half a dozen museum-design companies entered the competition. Disney imagineers had their own recommendation: BRC Imagination Arts, headed by a former Disney employee named Bob Rogers. Yet most insiders in the museum business assumed the job would be awarded to the New York firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which had recently won praise for its understated, almost unbearably moving Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Cellini and her committee were unimpressed. "Ralph Appelbaum was hot stuff," she said. "He was sure he'd get the job. So he sent a third-stringer to give the presentation. He had very mundane drawings. He just taped them to the walls. No energy. No excitement."

Bob Rogers from BRC, by contrast, showed up with a multimedia presentation, a collection of props, and a full complement of writers and artists. He won the contract.