Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

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I’ve got a few remarks on the Booth bobblehead brouhaha

…over at the Lincoln Institute blog, but Kevin Levin says pretty much the same thing more concisely and bluntly at Civil War Memory.

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Nothing says cultural legitimacy like pro wrestling

The folks at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum are either really creative or really desperate:

Springfield’s favorite son, whose skill as a wrestler has been recognized by induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Hall of Outstanding Americans, may never have donned sequins or worn his stovepipe hat into the squared circle, but the museum that bears his name is promoting itself with a pro wrestling ticket giveaway.

“We’re always looking for ways to tie in popular culture and Abraham Lincoln,” said Dave Blanchette, spokesman for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

A pro wrestling connection isn’t the only non-traditional promotion the non-traditional ALPM has employed in its efforts to attract people who aren’t regular museum-goers. Springfield’s 6-year-old museum and other presidential museums are always looking for ways to increase attendance by drawing new customers.

The ALPM is giving away one pair of tickets each day starting Monday through July 30 to the  WWE Presents RAW World Tour show July 31 at the Prairie Capital Convention Center.

Um.  Okay.

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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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TWO! Two instances of ill-conceived and frivolous museum programming! AH! AH! AH!

Image from the Muppet Wiki. (Yes, there's a Muppet Wiki.)

We’re reaching: “Seth Grahame-Smith will appear at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield, Illinois as one of the first stops on the release tour for his new book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.…The result is an entertaining and educational blend of history and fantasy that should bring the Lincoln story to an entirely new audience.”

And we’re reeeeeeaaaaaaching: “A small exhibit will be on display in the Museum showing the influence of the Gothic horror novel upon Lincoln and his era.”

As inappropriate as I think the ALPLM’s attempts to cash in on this are, the book itself looks like it’ll be a riot.  Plus, I’ve got to admire this guy’s honesty: “It seemed like every popular hardcover book was either a vampire novel or a Lincoln biography, so I thought I might as well combine the two.”  An author who flat-out admits that he wrote a Lincoln book just to cash in on a trend—now that’s refreshing!

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All they need now is a lemonade stand

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield is selling a cookbook with recipes supplied by volunteers and staff, with proceeds to benefit the facility’s programs.

As a fundraising tool for a massive, high-tech, multi-million-dollar museum, this seems a little odd.  One of the women’s groups at my church did this exact same thing.

Maybe the Smithsonian should hold a car wash on the National Mall.

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