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The New Presidential Library Showcases Legacy of Abraham Lincoln

April 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: It may look more like an amusement park than more conventional, serious-with-a- capital-“S” history museums, with ghostly, holographic images that fly out of books and cannons that seem to fire. But this is a museum, a massive new museum and library dedicated to the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln lived most of his life, already boasts many attractions dedicated to the nation’s 16th president: The Lincoln home, where the family lived prior to moving to the White House; the Lincoln-Herndon Law offices, where the future president practiced law from 1834 to 1852; the old state capitol, where Lincoln famously said on the eve of the Civil War, “A house divided against itself cannot stand;” and Springfield has Lincoln himself. The president’s body was brought here after the assassination in Washington, DC. He lies buried here with his wife and three of his sons.

But unlike Richard Nixon’s Yorba Linda or Bill Clinton’s Little Rock, after 140 years, Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield had no presidential library or museum, until now. And the credit is due in large part to this man, Richard Norton Smith, a familiar face to NewsHour viewers, and now director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library.

An historian’s dream come true, the museum has 40,000 square feet of space dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, twice the size of any other presidential museum. The library is home to six miles of shelves and nearly 28,000 cubic feet of manuscript space to house 12,000 documents, including the world’s largest collection of Lincoln documents.

Visitors to the museum will see all the familiar highlights of Lincoln’s life: Young Lincoln teaching himself to read in the log cabin where he was born, while his father, Thomas snores on the bed; leading the country through its worst national crisis; the Civil War; and watching a play at Ford’s Theatre as John Wilkes Booth sneaks into his box to murder him. All the stories are there, but there’s more.

NARRATOR: That was Lincoln’s vision of America.

RAY SUAREZ: Smith, together with BRC Imagination Arts, a spin-off of Disney’s Imagineering, and an advisory group of historians, designed high-tech exhibits for the museum, breaking with traditional museum fare.

NARRATOR: Sometimes in our imaginations, these people seem so real.

RAY SUAREZ: In this film, “Ghosts of the Library,” the visitor is introduced to the library and what it does with its inventory. A live actor interacts with a holographic image of Lincoln. As work crews put the finishing touches on the exhibits, Smith gave us a glimpse of the museum.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is what I call “in your face” history. I mean, when Lincoln is 19 years old, he takes a flatboat down the Mississippi, and in New Orleans he comes face-to-face with the full horror of slavery. And he says later on that there was never a time in his life when slavery did not have the power to make him miserable.

RAY SUAREZ: And here we have the courting Lincoln, huh?

NANCY SODERBERG: That’s right. Lincoln comes to Springfield, where he meets Miss Mary Todd. Two people from more disparate backgrounds would be hard to imagine. But that’s part of the attraction. I mean, a classic case of opposites attracting. What they had in common is extraordinarily contemporary in a 21st century sense.

This is a political partnership. But they loved each other, they adored their children, and they both wanted very much to live in the White House. And successful marriages have been based on less than that.

NARRATOR: John C. Breckinridge, he’ll fight for your rights, your property, your home. Paid for by Patriots for Breckinridge.

TIM RUSSERT: A states rights theme from pro-slavery candidate, John Breckinridge.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is the decidedly unconventional treatment of the campaign of 1860, and in many ways this is a metaphor for the whole museum. There is a vast amount of scholarship behind this presentation.

The trick is presenting it in a way that is accessible for a modern audience: Different age levels, different levels of interest, different levels of knowledge. It may be unconventional, it may be imaginative, but guess what? When you walk out of this room, I guarantee you will know vastly more than you did when you walked in here about the election of 1860.

NARRATOR: Stephen A. Douglas.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s nice to know that television commercials in 1860 were as cheesy as they are today.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: So much of the political debate at the time was carried on in political cartoons in newspapers. The other thing that you realize as you walk through this gallery is anyone who thinks that negative politics is a modern invention has never read the 19th century press.

RAY SUAREZ: So if traditionalists have been gasping for breath until now, we finally got something that looks like a museum.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Lots and lots and lots of words, printed texts and images and touch screens. In fact, these are hundreds of images from our collection, and the junkie can stand here all day if he wants and punch up and find out about the prisoner of war experience, the women in the war, individual battles, generals, espionage, you name it. It’s literally hands-on history. And it is accompanied over our shoulder by that very noisy map, which, in fact, reproduces the Civil War in four minutes, one week per second.

You can follow the movements of both armies, and they are synchronized through that odometer of death. You seen the toll, which is measured in the hundreds of thousands. This next gallery brings home in very stark terms the toll that the war took on one man, the president of the United States. And that is bracketed dramatically by these two life masks: One taken at the time of Lincoln’s nomination for president in Chicago in 1860 when he was a vigorous 51 years-old; the other, less than five years later, but seemingly decades older.

RAY SUAREZ: A tour of the museum concludes in a replica of representative hall. The original is just a few blocks away, with Lincoln’s body lying in state. The hall includes details such as the bunting surrounding the casket and the words “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior,” referring to the union, and then Lincoln’s words spoken in 1861: “Sooner than surrender these principles, I would be assassinated on the spot.” Smith says the new museum intentionally took a different approach to telling the Lincoln story.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It’s very much outside the box. But, again, what’s the acid test of great teaching? You impart information; you impart passion; you impart a feel for a remote time and place and ideas and culture. Do you impart a sense of curiosity? I think that at its best what these exhibits do generally. And it;ll be very interesting to see particularly how it affects young people.

RAY SUAREZ: So we talked with some young people who had just been through the museum, to get their reactions. Who learned something that they really didn’t know before they came here?

YOUNG GIRL: I learned that when the slaves were there, that they had to be sold to other people and had to be taken away from their family.

RAY SUAREZ: That was pretty sad, huh? Had you ever seen anything like that before?


RAY SUAREZ: How about you?

YOUNG BOY: I’d say it was kind of interesting to know, like how much he was hated and stuff while he was president, and not liked by all of the south and a lot of other people, and now today he’s like really famous and popular.

RAY SUAREZ: But not everyone is happy with the museum. John Simon, an historian and teacher of history from Southern Illinois University, calls the museum Six Flags over Lincoln.

JOHN SIMON: I’ve heard arguments that because of the deficiencies of today’s young people, we need to go out and grab them with a lot of attractions, with spooky stuff like a Lincoln ghost or a Lincoln body in a coffin, or with all the other impediment of the Lincoln Museum. It’s not, in fact, a demonstrated truth, but it’s an assumption that people have made for their own Disney-esque purposes in arranging for a children’s museum that emphasizes glitz and deemphasizes history.

RAY SUAREZ: Simon is especially critical of what he calls the “rubber Lincolns,” or the life-size replicas of Lincoln scattered throughout the museum.

JOHN SIMON: Sometimes scholarship is quite enough. There is a cheat about a rubber Lincoln that basically rankles and which makes him into something to joke about, rather than to take seriously and to absorb as part of the important learning process that I would hope to take place in a Lincoln Museum.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The fact of the matter is that any great story is told on multiple levels for diverse audiences. This is a mix. There are special effects; there are the life-size figures. But you know what? In the end, there is nothing to compare with coming face-to-face with Lincoln’s own words in Lincoln’s own hand. I mean, that’s the ultimate “wow” effect.

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, the museum will feature documents, like a copy of the Gettysburg Address written by Lincoln and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation with Lincoln’s own signature, when the museum opens to the public in a dedication ceremony scheduled for Tuesday.