Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hanging Out With Abe (Paige and I Visit the Lincoln Museum)

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois does a wonderful job of presenting the Safe Version of the 16th President. That’s a worthy thing. When I visited, there were busloads of school kids. I’m sure that is not a rare phenomenon. And children of a variety of races and creeds were as a whole presented with a national icon that unites us; the aspects of Lincoln that divide us were given short shift. But more about that in a bit. ****** First the things I loved about the museum. Thought and expense was put into keeping the museum from being dull. There are people who complain about the museum being Disneyfied. I have no problem with that. Many of the nontraditional attractions are insightful. To present the four major candidates for President in 1860, a wall of televisions present the campaign of that year narrated by Tim Russert. Sure, that’s taking liberties, but I don’t think anyone visiting the museum would think they actually think they had TV at that time, so that’s okay. (With the possible exception of Joe Biden, but I didn’t see him there that day. ) ***** The museum divides a tour of Lincoln’s life into two parts. One enters a log cabin to follow the path of Honest Abe’s boyhood through the presidential campaign. One enters the White House to learn of the presidential years, the war years. It was great fun to see wax works of Lincoln and Stephen Douglas posed to debate in front of a replica of a building on the Knox College campus. Because the next day, my daughter, Paige, and I stood in front of the real building as I took her back for her third year at the school. ***** Wax replicas of Lincoln and other figures of his times populate all sections of this tour (from the boy Lincoln reading outside his cabin to the aged leader sitting in his box at Ford’s theater.) I was delighted when they used the old wax museum trick of putting a “real” Lincoln where we expected another wax figure. (Even better when I saw that same Lincoln greeted as “Fritz” in the parking lot as he drove off in his red Taurus.) ***** A very cool special effects “Ghosts” show with a Twilight Zone twist demonstrates the importance of the work of archive preservation. “The War Gallery” provides was of the best methods of presenting photos I’ve ever seen. And an amazing little film presents the history of the Civil War in four minutes. Another display I loved was a room filled with cartoons and quotes critical of President Lincoln and his wife Mary. Lincoln portrayed as a backward, hideous ape, either a buffoon or evil genius. Overhead clashing speakers voice the snakelike voice of his critics. But that room highlights one of the minor problems I have with the museum. ***** With hindsight we are allowed to mock the critics who didn’t recognize the Great Man. And for the most part we are shielded from the controversial aspects of his life. In the interactive film, “Lincoln’s Eyes”, we’re told that the imagery of the House Divided Speech is provided by his childhood reading of Aesop’s Fables. That is true, to a point, but his reading of the Gospels probably influenced that speech even more. But we are kept at a safe distance from Lincoln the theologian. Atheists have used Lincoln’s criticism of the historicity of Scripture to claim him as one of their own. And Christian’s have used other speeches and comments to claim him as well. But little is said about Lincoln’s view of religious faith is not highlighted, because, well, it wouldn’t be safe. ***** There is a discussion of the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but other controversial issues about Lincoln’s opinions on slaves, such as his remarks that blacks should be sent back to Africa are not highlighted in any way. And we certainly don’t hear any of Lincoln’s bawdy stories. And there seems to be a minimum of mentions of Lincoln as, well, a Republican. ***** Everything presented seems to be aimed at allowing all visitors to claim Lincoln as their own. And at a time when there is so much dissention in our country over race, politics and religion…That’s okay.

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