Of the presidential museums we have visited, My wife Carla and I agree that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Ill., is the most exciting and entertaining. Although a bit like one of the Orlando, Fla., attractions, it still remains true to the history of our country, making it very palatable to visitors.
We were left with two strong impressions. First, it was like walking into a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum based on a single celebrity and the people in his life. Second, after watching their two major presentations our reaction was: "Wow, how did they do that?"
A dozen tableaus recapture scenes of important moments and people in President Abraham Lincoln’s life. These full-size figures have a startling reality with their animated expressions and life-like eyes. We saw the young Lincoln lying in front of the fireplace embers teaching himself how to read as his snoring dog slept at his feet. He shared the one-room cabin with his father, stepmother and three stepsiblings.
Later we see the young lawyer in his office reading as his two young sons tear the place apart. Several of the characters from his life surprised me when I first recognized they were not fellow visitors, but were other life-like figures. John Wilkes Booth startled me the most. Also looking very hale and healthy were George McClellan, U.S. Grant, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.
The most disturbing tableau was that of a family of slaves on the auction block being separated by their new owners.
One room has a display of the dresses of the main ladies of society who were contending with Mary Lincoln for control of social leadership in Washington, D.C. The saddest of a number of scenes with her is the one where she sits in a depression after the death of her second son.
I should have guessed something unusual was to happen since a glass wall stood between the audience and the historian introducing us to the library. He said he would explain the ways in which historical material is collected and analyzed. During the presentation, smoke would appear and slowly take the form of Lincoln or others, and voices would speak.
Once, smoke rose from one of his books and took form - sheer visual magic.
All of this did not prepare us for the final act when a wind began to blow a flag on the stage. The presenter stepped to a coat rack, put on a Union army jacket and began to tell us about his experiences in the War Between the States. The solid-looking library became a battlefield scene. As what now had to be an actor on film, he continued to talk to us as his body slowly disappeared and we were left with only his voice.
I still don’t know if the actor was really there for the first half of the program or I had just seen one the best 3-D presentations ever. Later, in an even larger theater, we saw the multimedia presentation of "The Eyes of Lincoln."
At that performance I assumed the solid-looking man moving around on the stage telling us about major events in Lincoln’s life was an illusion. This was confirmed as he moved back and forth between what appeared to be live action on the stage and action on the screen.
The same technique was used as we passed a series of windows with citizens giving their reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation. In the tableau in this room, each of Lincoln’s Cabinet members has been faithfully reproduced so we could observe the room when he puts forward his intention to free the slaves. A man dressed as a secretary walked among the Cabinet members explaining how each of them was reacting. This figure was real. I touched him. The experience does leave the visitor with a question of what is reality.
The architect has been very generous with space. Besides the large theaters and the tableaus there are such rooms as the one with walls full of cartoons attacking Lincoln as a country bumpkin, a clown or a devil; and a separate presentation on questions asked by children with answers given in Lincoln’s own words.
Part of what the museum tries to do is to take some of the myth out of Lincoln’s life and show the real man who suffered, worked hard and questioned what he was doing.