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Review Of Lincoln Museum And Library In Springfield, IL

Stephen Kinzer, The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2004

[Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from a much longer piece.]

Perhaps no figure is more closely bound to the American consciousness with what Abraham Lincoln called ''the mystic chords of memory'' than Lincoln himself. Now, nearly a century and a half after his death, his hometown is honoring him with what promises to be a spectacular and perhaps controversial museum.

The museum and adjoining library will house one of the finest collections of Lincoln documents and memorabilia. There will also be cannons that emit smoke, a theater whose seats will shake when battle scenes are shown on screen, and dozens of life-size figures of Lincoln and his contemporaries.

''The quality of these exhibits is light-years ahead of anything you'll find in other presidential libraries,'' said Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. ''I really don't think there's anything like this anywhere.''

Not everyone is pleased with Mr. Smith's plans. Critics fear that in his desire to appeal to children and others who are unfamiliar with Lincoln, he is sacrificing the authenticity and decorum that the Great Emancipator deserves. He is pressing ahead, however, determined to give visitors a dose of what he calls ''in-your-face history.''

Some have marveled that it took so long for Springfield to honor Lincoln this way. The new complex, however, may be opening at a propitious moment. The 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth is in 2009, and many scholars, journalists, filmmakers and others are working on projects timed to take advantage of it. Soon afterward will come the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

''People today don't talk about Franklin Pierce,'' Mr. Smith said. ''Nobody is debating Chester Arthur's sexuality or Benjamin Harrison's views on race. It's Lincoln, and it's going to keep being Lincoln as long as the great questions he confronted are still with us.''

For decades, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has maintained a large collection of Lincoln-related papers and artifacts. It never had space to display most of them, however, and few visitors found their way to the subterranean rooms where they were stored.

''It was a well-kept secret,'' said Kim Bauer, curator of the Lincoln collection. ''If people came to visit, it was usually because they stumbled upon it. The most common thing you'd hear was, 'I didn't even know this was down here.'''

No one passing through Springfield will be able to ignore the imposing new complex. The library, which opened last month, and the museum, which is to open in April, are the most ambitious public buildings this city of 110,000 has erected in generations. The complex, including a visitors' center and a parking garage, cost $150 million. Federal, state and local governments paid the bill.

Visitors to the museum will enter a large hall dominated by a replica of Lincoln's humble birthplace on one side and the White House on the other. In front of the White House will stand life-size figures of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George McClellan, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, while a figure of John Wilkes Booth crouches in the nearby bushes.

Other rooms will be devoted to stages in Lincoln's life, from the years when he practiced law here to his Civil War presidency. There will be a reproduction of the box in Ford's Theater where he was sitting when he was assassinated, and another of the chamber in the Illinois State Capitol where his body lay in state.

Artifacts will be scattered through the museum. They are as varied as a copy of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln's own hand and Mary Todd Lincoln's jewelry case. Reproductions of the jewelry case may be offered for sale at the museum store.

At each stop in the museum, visitors will confront figures that Mr. Smith was eager to call ''not rubber Lincolns.''

''They are figures that combine forensic science and computer technology to produce strikingly realistic images,'' he said. ''We're using computer technology to tell what can be a pretty dry story.''

Directors of many historical museums are wrestling with the issue of how much dazzling technology to use. Projects like the Lincoln Museum and one being built at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate, are pushing the limits of computer graphics, holograms and other state-of-the-art techniques.

''We're not about dumbing down, which would be a betrayal of trust,'' Mr. Smith said. ''What we want to do is credibly put a visitor inside a 19th-century world. It really is important for a fourth grader to come out of here knowing what history is and wanting to know more.''

This approach horrifies some historians. ''I oppose the Disney touch in the Lincoln Museum,'' said John Y. Simon, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Carbondale. ''When you have a Gettysburg Address, when you have priceless documents and important letters, let's showcase them instead of the rubber Lincolns.''