Attraction of the Week: The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois
Written by Anthony Murphy
With President's Day just around the corner (and Lincoln's Birthday tomorrow), we turn to another popular type of themed attraction found outside of theme parks -- presidential libraries and museums. Here you will find the presidents' legacies in both their professional and private lives. The libraries also showcase the state or city the former president calls home. I was able to visit the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, which opened in 2005. Up to this point, Lincoln did not have an official presidential library (the practice is relatively modern), but the state of Illinois has provided a library and museum that is both modern and educational on the 16th president.
[Editor's note: The museum's interior experience was designed by BRC Imagination Arts, the theme park design firm headed by TPI community member Bob Rogers, who produced the Impressions de France movie at Epcot, among many, many other industry accomplishments. So the connection between presidential museums and theme parks is even closer than you might have thought!]
Springfield is situated in the middle of Illinois, making it not really near any major American city (the closest isn't Chicago -- it's St. Louis). Getting there by car is pretty easy, but I traveled like Lincoln, the train! The Amtrak Lincoln Line connects Chicago to St. Louis and makes a stop only a couple of blocks away from the Lincoln Museum. The entire train ride takes about two and a half hours, but this line is one of the recipients of federal grants to build a high speed rail line. In a few years, this travel time will be half.
The Lincoln Library and Museum is split into two buildings: the library and the museum. The library is pretty much just a library and really doesn't have anything on display. It is also closed on the weekends. The Museum is the main attraction and what we'll visit here.
From the entrances of the museum, we come to the main hall which features wax figures of the Lincoln family that welcome us in front of a replica of the White House. There is soft music wafting in this main area which are said to be some of Abraham Lincoln's favorite music. From here are the entry point to the two walkthroughs, two permanent shows, the kids' area, and the two "traveling" exhibits.
Beginnings: Going left, we enter into Abraham Lincoln's boyhood cabin to experience Lincoln's life before becoming president. We see the cramped corners where he grew up and, later, his family with son Tad and Willie playing a rousing game of baseball with their father's inkwell in the law office. Dispersed though these scenes are various trinkets and artifacts, including a debate program, Mary Todd's Fan, and Lincoln's shaving kit. This area ends with a pretty clever news report with a cameo by the late Tim Russert informing us on the race for president in 1860 (there were four people who got electoral votes). Each candidate also had video political ads as if they were actually running in 2004, not 1860. These were ads that were supposed to be humorous, but gave the slogans and positions of the candidates too. Throughout this exhibit, there were small little signs giving the addresses of the locations being portrayed in the scenery. It also stated how far away you were from the actual location. Because this is Springfield, many were less than three blocks away from the museum.
Life in the White House: Going right, you would enter into the White House and learn about Abraham Lincoln's time as President of the United States. There are not as many artifacts on this side of the walkthrough because it is designed to evoke strong visuals. This side also takes a bit of a more serious tone, such as with the Whispering Gallery. This is a winding and disorienting hall with many of the political cartoons framed on the walls and speakers whispering many distortions and lies about the president. There is also a hallway where videos of people are yelling at you (as Lincoln) that you are tearing apart the country and you should not run for a second term. Other subjects covered include the death of Willie Lincoln (which put Mary Todd into a huge bout of depression), the Civil War in four minutes, which showed on the map the deaths on both sides, and the assassination in Ford's Theatre. This side of the walkthrough ends with Lincoln's casket lying in state in the Illinois State Capitol. This room is very dark and has church organ music playing in the scenery. There are the same signs that tell you where to find the actual locations being portrayed, but most are in Washington D.C.
Ghosts of the Library: This show includes a live actor who describes the wonders that this Presidential Library has in store from the artifacts. It uses much of the same Pepper's Ghost technology that is used in the Haunted Mansion and Knott's Farm's Mystery Lodge [another BRC Imagination Arts production]. The actor opens books and out flies Civil War scenes, Lincoln giving a speech, and a finale that transforms the entire stage. (I won't give away the ending and spoil the magic.)
Though Lincoln's Eyes: This show gives a brief history of Abraham Lincoln's life. This is similar to a 4D show, but does not require 3D glasses. There are many physical effects that include shaking chairs, cannon fire with real smoke, and an appearance by John Wilkes Booth in the rafters. It is also much more packed with information than Ghosts of the Library.
To Kill and to Heal: This is an exhibit that showcased many of the weapons and artillery that were used during the Civil War. It also showcased medical supplies used by doctors and nurses during the war. One fact is that more people died during the Civil War from disease than from battles or injuries.
State of Illinois: This exhibit rotates many pieces in the archives of the Library including, yes, Abraham Lincoln's hat. There were also other personal pieces, including a photo of Lincoln's daughter in law for her wedding (one of the first color photographs ever made) and Tad's "chocolate letters" which were chocolates wrapped in handwritten letters to Tad's friends (the chocolate has mostly melted!)
Because of the reading and the somewhat intense scenery in the exhibits and the shows, this Presidential Library is most enjoyed by visitors age 8 and up. However, there is very nice play area called Mrs. Lincoln's Attic where kids can dress up like the famous first family, compare their heights with Abraham, Tad, and Mary Todd, and, you guessed it, play with Lincoln Logs.
This Presidential Museum is designed to educate and entertain. Between the shows and exhibits, it is very similar to the American Adventure or the Hall of Presidents. The one downside I found was that there is very little photography allowed. The museum takes about four hours to experience everything. It is a good precursor before visiting Lincoln Tomb and his Springfield home, all within walking distance. It is $12 for adults, $6 for kids (under 15).
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