Francis X. Clines: Disneyfing History at the Lincoln and Washington Museums

Roundup: Talking About History

Francis X. Clines, in the NYT (12-12-04)

John Wilkes Booth, skulking by the bushes outside the faux White House, will be the first test of true Lincoln buffs visiting the grand new Lincoln museum that opens this April in Springfield, Ill. How many will resist darting over immediately to leer at the assassin's lifelike figure rather than pausing thoughtfully at Lincoln's rustic beginnings at a nearby replica of his birthplace?

Such are the questions already in the air as the new museum installs cutting-edge verisimilitude. There'll be cannons that smoke, theater seats that rumble in sync with filmed battle depictions, and dozens of lifelike Lincolns and contemporaries waiting like docents, contriving to fulfill the museum's goal of a more powerful, "in your face" brand of history.

Detractors already are hooting about the Disneyfication of Old Abe in the museum's pioneering use of forensic science and computer technology to stoke the popular imagination. But controversy has also been a good impetus for museum attendance. Besides, another zeitgeist remake is under way on none other than George Washington. Curators at Mount Vernon have hired physical anthropologists to painstakingly produce science's best three-dimensional estimate of what the teenage Washington looked like.

The gaze and heft of Washington in his 50's was well recorded by artists and sculptors, but the aim is to present a fuller life story by "de-aging" the national patriarch down to 19 years. This could answer the question of how much Washington's painful, iron-springed false teeth might have brought about his late-life clench of invincibility. But the main idea is to make him relevant - the nation's first action hero, is how it's being put - to young people herded to Mount Vernon, already bored with the schoolbook Washington.

This has possibilities. Those still reading - as opposed to virtually wading in - history can find Abigail Adams waxing groupie-like at first spying Washington and gushing a Dryden lyric at her husband: "Mark his Majestick Fabrick!"...

The current touch-ups of Lincoln and Washington seem unavoidable considering that modern technology has made interactive morphers of us all. It was Lincoln, leaving Springfield, who understood how history marches on as "the strange checkered past." We can only hope good taste prevails, as it has not prevailed with the entrepreneur who is marketing a Kennedy assassination game with the computer-user sighting over Lee Harvey Oswald's shoulder. It will be refreshing to see replications of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass taking their places in Lincoln's museum, so near the real-life copy of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's own handwriting.

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