Andrew Ferguson: How To Design a Lincoln Museum

Roundup: Talking About History

[Slate Introduction.]

In his new book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America, Andrew Ferguson crisscrosses the nation on a quest to understand our ongoing obsession with our lanky 16th president. In the process, he interviewed Lincoln buffs and Lincoln impersonators; historians, collectors, and business gurus; and dozens of others who have built their lives around the man. In today's excerpt, Ferguson explains how and why the state of Illinois hired Disney-style theme-park designers to develop the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the most ambitious (and expensive) attempt to bring Lincoln to the wider public since the opening of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Thursday, he'll examine the resulting institution.


The first Abraham Lincoln you meet at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is not monumental but life-size, as all newly made Lincolns are, and he's posed with his family, wife Mary and sons Robert, Tad, and Willie. This is a homey Lincoln—Lincoln the family man. He is dressed in real clothes—black frock coat, square-toed boots—and underneath he is made of rubber.

Rubber is the layman's term. Technically, he's a "polymer blend," a sculpted slab of blubbery foam coated in fiberglass and covered with a silicone skin that's been tinted to a ruddy hue. His hair is a mixture of human and synthetic hair. His face isn't a precise, painstaking re-creation of the face you see in photographs; the nose is a millimeter too long and the lower lip a trifle too pendulous. The eyes are brighter but less humorous. Each feature has been exaggerated to a degree that's just barely perceptible, for a cartoonish effect.

But it's a face you've seen before, and if you're among the 98 percent of Americans who have ever spent a day in Orlando, Fla., or Anaheim, Calif., you might suddenly remember where. Springfield's new-generation Lincoln, standing with wife and kids in the Museum Plaza, is a dead ringer for the President Lincoln in Walt Disney's Hall of Presidents.

This odd revelation spreads as you move along through the museum, which opened in Springfield, Ill., in 2005. An impression of Disney—maybe a Disney aesthetic is the better way to say it—pops up everywhere. Beyond the Lincoln family, to your left, is a life-size mock-up of Lincoln's boyhood cabin in Indiana, against an idyllic woodland backdrop that might have been lifted from Disney's Pocahontas. Later, Mary Lincoln reappears, as plump and apple-cheeked as the fairy Flora in Cinderella. Suddenly we come upon a corridor where the walls are set at disorienting angles and whispers rise creepily from hidden speakers—as spooky as the Haunted Mansion.

Cute and chilling and sad and chipper—and fun!—and never, not for a moment, more realistic than an animated movie. Unless a visitor was prepared for it, he might be stunned to find such a style throughout the most important Lincoln tribute to be built in 80 years. How did the ALPLM get this way?...

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