A Lincoln for our time

Roundup: Talking About History

Illinois is a state in which Abraham Lincoln is revered and the state government is not. So it was not terribly surprising that when the state undertook the establishment of a new Lincoln presidential library and museum in Springfield, the project generated complaints that it failed to do justice to the Great Emancipator.
The facility was marred by cost overruns, construction flaws, political meddling and a bogus 2002 grand opening staged before the buildings were actually open--timed so that Gov. George Ryan could bask in the glory before he left office. What began as a modest $6 million site for Lincoln artifacts eventually metamorphosed into an ultra-modern 200,000-square foot complex costing some $150 million, conceived by a former Walt Disney designer with the intention of
captivating the masses.

When the museum finally opened for real in April, critics deplored its high-tech innovations and dramatizations of history as shallow gimmicks more befitting MTV than a presidential museum. Gripes were heard about its fiberglass reproductions of Lincoln and other figures of the time, its liberties with historical quotations, and its razzle-dazzle presentations. Southern Illinois University historian John Y. Simon said it should be called "Six Flags Over Lincoln."
The museum has evidently succeeded in pulling people away from other activities: So far this year, it has attracted some 315,000 visitors, about double the number staffers had expected.

The apparent reason is that the people who created the many exhibits and features have managed to bring Lincoln and his era to life in vivid, arresting fashion.

The result is an experience more intense than many museum-goers are used to. Voices are heard expressing popular but jarring sentiments of the day, such as, "Slavery is the Negro's natural and moral condition." A recreation of a slave auction has been known to bring some viewers to tears. The generally frank treatment of race has brought praise from such African-American visitors as State Senate President Emil Jones, who declared that the museum "tells the truth."

Race came up when the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government charged that minorities are under-represented on the staff of the facility. Says Richard Norton Smith, executive director of the library and museum, "The single most gratifying thing about this job is the number of minority visitors I see every day. The single most frustrating thing is the low number of minority employees." Gov. Rod Blagojevich blames state hiring rules, and Smith says private contractors providing services have more minority employees.
Harvard scholar and Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald says the museum has captured Lincoln "in a very interesting, imaginative way" that, for young people especially, can "make it feel as though they were there." Graham Peck, an assistant history professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago, predicts it will create "excitement about Lincoln among younger people" that will pique their interest in our greatest president.

[Editor's Note: This piece was authored by the Chciago Tribune's editors.]

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