Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

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We visited the Presidential Museum the day after we visited the Lincoln Home. Our visit to the Lincoln Museum was unlike our visit to the Hoover Museum. First, and very much to my dismay, the museum does not allow photography, which is always such a difficult thing for me to hear (the Hoover Museum allowed photography – without flash – in all but the temporary exhibits). While a member of the museum staff told me that they are considering opening certain areas of the museum to photos in the future, for our visit the only place photographs were allowed was inside the main foyer.

So, here it is, your Lincoln Museum photo.

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The picture itself isn’t all that interesting; the Lincoln Family standing in front of the White House. However, those paying attention will see that the family is being observed from a distance. That’s John Wilkes Booth leaning against the column to the left.

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In addition to the no-photos rule, the Lincoln Museum, which opened in 2005 is a great deal newer than the Hoover Museum (opened in 1962) and employs far different techniques for presenting information (though some believe the museum is already outdated after less than ten full years – more on that later) favoring more advanced media, and less memorabilia display cases. The difference might be explained, in part, by the fact that the Hoover Museum is part of a Presidential Library system comprised of 13 libraries/museums that are operated by the National Archives, while the Lincoln Museum is run by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, was funded with a combination of state, federal and municipal money, and consists of exhibits designed by BRC Imagination Arts, which also designs theme park exhibits.

We began our visit entering through Lincoln’s Log Cabin to Journey One: The Pre-Presidential Years. Passing through the cabin itself you find a young Lincoln reading (Lincoln was self-educated). Once exiting into the main section, one of the first exhibits depicts a Slave Auction showing a family being sold and torn apart, a sad (and unfathomable) depiction of what would have been an all-too-often occurrence. Other areas of this section touched on Lincoln’s relationship with Ann Rutledge who died in 1835 (and is considered by some to have been his first and true love). Lincoln would meet Mary Todd four years later and after a stormy courtship, marry.

Some of Lincoln’s pre-White House days were a bit of surprise to me. I knew he was a lawyer, and knew that he held other political offices before being elected President, but I had no idea just how many times he had run for various offices and lost. In fact, it seemed as though he’d lost far more elections than he’d won.

A fascinating look at the 1860 presidential election was presented in one of the rooms. A multi-screen video presentation, Campaign 1860, featuring the fantastic, late Tim Russert, esteemed host of Meet the Press from 1991 until his untimely passing in 2008, does a great job of showcasing the issues facing the candidates, their ideals and conflicts, and how those issues would have played out in a modern-day arena. A plaque on the wall dedicates the exhibit to Mr. Russert.

When we exited “Journey One” the White House exhibit looked particularly crowded so we headed instead over to the Union Theater where we viewed Lincoln’s Eyes – describe by the museum as a story “told by the artist who struggled to capture the sorrow, hope, vision, resolve, and forgiveness in Lincoln’s eyes.” It was a wonderful piece, though I was annoyed at the number of adults seemingly incapable of sitting through a 20 minute presentation without talking.

From there we entered through the White House to Journey Two: The White House Years. As you enter you are immediately greeted with voices and chaos, while the sounds of political discourse and Lincoln-bashing surround you in what’s known as the Whispering Gallery. The walls are covered in political cartoons, from both sides of the aisle, none portraying Lincoln in a particularly positive light. Lincoln, a liberal Republican (no, the terms are not mutually exclusive, as the Republicans were once the more progressive party), was pretty much universally loathed for most of his presidency (in the 4-way race, Lincoln was elected with only 39% of the popular vote). Things had turned slightly in his favor shortly before his re-election, but overall he did not experience overwhelming popularity while in office, only rising to legend status long after his assassination.

As I made my way through the museum, one thing became apparent. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Those who long for a time when debate was spirited but civil, and lacked partisan clashes would be greatly disappointed when truly looking at history. Such gentler times do not exist.

Interestingly enough, Mary Todd Lincoln was not particularly popular in Washington either. Many of the local society women felt her beneath them, and not up to the standard of first lady. A particularly interesting exhibit shows Mary in a ball gown with the gowns of her rivals around an outer ring. The associated commentary of the women is full of catty and cruel remarks. Episodes of “Real Housewives of 1800’s Washington, D.C.” could have certainly featured these women.

Deeper in the journey you experienced the Lincolns’ pain of losing their son Willie (an exhibit shows them sitting vigil at Willie’s bedside while the President must also attend a White House ball). Further in, a large gallery with ghostly faces and voices debate the effectiveness and constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation, while another shows the 13th Amendment being heavily debated within Lincoln’s inner circle. In 2013, 148 years after its passing, Mississippi would become the final state to ratify the amendment (though they voted to ratify in 1995, they neglected to submit the paperwork). The section ends with first a replica of the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater, and then Lincoln Lying in State at the Capital.

It would be impossible for me to describe all the museum has to offer, including the Treasures Gallery which hosts a large collection of Lincoln-related artifacts.. That said, I thought it was the most interesting museum of its kind I have ever been to and would recommend it to all. The displays were visually interesting, and captivated your mind and your emotions. The Civil War in 4 Minutes (click the link for the video), a Ken Burns piece chronicling the war’s shifting boundaries and the casualty count, makes a big impact. I wept as I stood in a dimly lit room and read the Gettysburg Address while a somber rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic played softly in the background. Manipulative? Sure. But effective. Complete with a message that I don’t think we have mastered even today.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

We made our way into the Museum Store, and I was sad to discover that while the museum does sell DVDs of some of the other video shorts from the exhibits, they do not sell the Tim Russert campaign piece. He passed before they received publication rights. I hope that someday his family will make this fantastic video available for the public or at least to educators. I can think of at least one history teacher that would make it an annual viewing in her classroom.

On the way out, I noticed a Penny Machine in the lobby. I have collected pressed pennies for years, but was thoroughly amused at pressing an image of the Lincoln Museum on my Lincoln penny.

Across the street at the Union Station Train Depot (converted as part of the museum site), a small tribute to the Oscar winning film exists (and if you haven’t seen it, I couldn’t recommended it highly enough). The exhibit is extremely limited, showing one small set (where Lincoln’s closest discussed the 13th), a dress worn by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and a few other pieces of movie memorabilia, but it was fun to pop into.

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Research after the visit revealed that many believe that the museum isn’t “museum-like” enough, but I think that’s what made it fantastic. It engages in a way that most don’t, drawing you in with the interactive and vibrant exhibits. Even complaints about the Tim Russert piece being outdated seem like nonsense to me. While younger generations certainly won’t feel the nostalgia that I (and I’m sure others) felt upon coming across a piece of Mr. Russert’s work, the lesson of the video still stands as it illustrates that the political machine, while constantly evolving, hasn’t changed the overall conflicts inherent in the political process itself.

The museum is extraordinarily well done and tells a remarkable story about a remarkable man.

Thanks for reading. Thoughts, questions and comments always welcome.

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