The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
Amazing theater productions.
Unique historical displays.
You’ll find all of this and more at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois. But what you won’t find are many artifacts on display. And you know what? You will be so dazzled by the exhibits, you won’t even miss them.
Your adventure begins in an oversized rotunda space, with life-sized figures of the Lincoln family available for photo opportunities with visitors. To the left is The Journey, Part I – The Pre-Presidential Years, which begins with a young Abraham Lincoln lounging outside a cabin. To the right is The Journey, Part II – The White House, with assassin John Wilkes Booth lurking near a replica of the porch. Lincoln’s story is told through a series of lifelike scenes, culminating in a funeral display that makes you feel as if you are really there.
As you step into the cabin to begin The Journey , Part I, you encounter several vignettes depicting Lincoln’s early years. One of the most powerful exhibits in the entire museum is a slave auction block scene. Lit with dramatic red lighting, a shackled slave woman is torn from her child and husband, as a sinister auctioneer presides over the sale. The anguish and tears on their faces bring the scene to life, almost as if you are witnessing it firsthand. As a young man, Lincoln saw such a scene which shaped his views on slavery.
Another vignette shows Lincoln’s young sons wreaking havoc in his law office, with ink stains all over the walls and one of the boys climbing on top of the table as an oblivious Lincoln reads stretched out on an ill-fitting sofa. History records how mischievous his boys were, but nothing drives it home quite like this scene.
This Journey ends with a look at Lincoln’s election to lead a deeply divided country. In one exhibit, NBC political correspondent Tim Russert covers the 1860 election as it would be covered today, bridging the gap between 19th century and modern politics.
The Journey, Part II focuses on Lincoln’s White House years, the Civil War, and of course his assassination. The entrance to this part of the museum features replicas of gowns worn by Mary Todd Lincoln’s social rivals in Washington, DC.
As you move through the Journey, a digital display shows the movements of the North and South, with a tally in the corner recording the number of casualties on both sides. Visitors can watch the numbers spike after each major battle. A disturbing, twisted Whispering Gallery, with crooked doorways and picture frames, is filled with the voices of Lincoln’s critics, who accused him doing too much and not enough, all at once. One imagines this is what it was like to live inside Lincoln’s head as he struggled to lead the nation through the bloodiest conflict in its history.
Willie’s deathbed scene poignantly illustrates the conflict Lincoln felt between his personal and professional lives. Mary is bent over a sick Willie, as Lincoln stands in the doorway, holding his favorite toy. Both are dressed in formal attire as the strains of ballroom music can be heard from the social gathering downstairs. The moment is both sweet and tragic.
One of the strengths of the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is its ability to bring scenes to life from all aspects of Lincoln’s story. As the President hammered out the details of the Emancipation Proclamation, one scene shows his Cabinet debating the issue, each man with a stance and expression belying his opinion on the matter. The heated conversation comes across loud and clear, although he figures are static and do not, themselves, speak.
The second Journey ends with a re-creation of Lincoln’s body lying in state. It is dimly lit, and so realistic, you feel as if you are paying your respects.
In addition to these Journeys, there are two theater experiences that use cutting edge technology to convey information. The Ghost of the Library – Holovision Theater explains the mission of a historical archive, with a narrator who isn’t really there. Or is he? The Union Theater uses sights, sounds, smells, and specially-designed vibrating seats to educate visitors about the life of Lincoln. You know the assassin’s gun is going to go off, yet it startles you anyway. Perhaps the anticipation makes it that much worse!
The museum also includes two traditional galleries featuring artifacts and documents in rotating temporary exhibitions; Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, a fun, interactive space for kids; a museum store; and a restaurant.
Many are surprised to learn that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is not part of the federally-funded presidential library system. The National Archives administers Herbert Hoover to the present, but anything prior to Hoover is either privately owned, state-run, or some combination. Lincoln is run by the State of Illinois, with active private foundation support.
The author visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum on her own. She was not compensated in any way for this review.
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