What parts of Lincoln’s story do we tell, and how do we do it?

I always enjoy reading the Abraham Lincoln Observer, and a recent item at that blog takes note of something that bugs me about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield—the exhibits, while extensive, leave a lot of important things unsaid.

Of course, those exhibits have been controversial since before the museum opened.  I always thought it was ironic that the ALPLM’s critics adopted the shorthand phrase “rubber Lincolns” to condemn the institution’s Disneyesque approach, because the mannequin set pieces are actually one of the most traditional exhibit techniques used there.  Indeed, mannequins situated in historical tableaux have been a staple of museums for a long, long time.  The ALPLM isn’t even the only Lincoln institution to make use of them.  The Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville has a series of these life-size scenes, and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum where I used to work, has also used this exhibit technique, although all but one of their mannequins are now in storage.

The Lincoln family hanging out at the ALPLM, while Booth slouches in the corner. From Wikimedia Commons

The more innovative exhibits at the ALPLM are actually the ones that don’t use the life-size figures.  I had mixed reactions to these bells and whistles when I visited the museum a few years ago.  I found some of these exhibits very effective, especially the mock television control room set-up used to explain the Election of 1860.  Consider for a moment how difficult it is to make sense of a four-way presidential race using the medium of a standard museum exhibit.  You’re dealing with abstract things like political principles and party platforms.  How do you introduce the players and explain what it’s all about in an engaging and informative manner?  The ALPLM did it by setting up a TV control room where visitors see the whole election play out in front of them.  It’s not just gadgetry for its own sake; it’s a creative and effective use of the best tools available to get the job done.

I had a decidedly more negative reaction to the “Ghosts of the Library” presentation, which is intended to introduce visitors to the archives.  It’s a theater presentation in which a live performer lip-synchs a recorded spiel while showing the audience replicated items from the collection which then come to life via special effects.  There’s more than a little irony involved here.  We’re watching a presentation intended to make us appreciate the importance of the raw materials of history, but it employs an actor parading around with fake artifacts.  If all that old stuff is so darned important, then why don’t they let us see more of it?  One gets the impression that the designers occasionally let their budget get the better of them, asking each other how cool it would be to do such-and-such without coming to terms with whether or not it’s actually the best approach.

But one of my biggest qualms about the ALPLM is the point raised in the piece linked above.  I think the exhibits dealing with Lincoln’s presidency are a little uneven in terms of content.  It’s not that I expect them to try to tell everything—that’s a ridiculous standard, as any public historian can tell you—but I do expect a facility which is the 600 lb. gorilla among Lincoln institutions to hit the most important high points.  And my impression of the presidential galleries was that the debate over emancipation overwhelmed all else.  Topics such as Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief, his efforts to shape public opinion, his controversial acts regarding wartime civil liberties, his ideas about Reconstruction—these aren’t really addressed in as substantial a manner as they deserve.  As important as emancipation was, one can’t understand Lincoln’s presidency based solely on that facet of it.  Furthermore, it seems to me that the aspects of Lincoln’s presidential years that the galleries emphasize are precisely those things most visitors are likely to know already.  He freed the slaves, he gave the Gettysburg Address, and he generally had a rough go of it.

I hope all this doesn’t sound like I’m trying to slam the ALPLM.  As I said, I think some of the exhibits there are wonderfully effective, and someday I hope to go back and visit again.  I like the fact that its innovative approach provoked a public discussion about how best to teach history using exhibits, which is a subject historians who don’t work in the museum field need to involve themselves in more closely.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites

One response to “What parts of Lincoln’s story do we tell, and how do we do it?

  1. Pingback: Now, eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your–on your dinosaur tour, right? | Past in the Present

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