Showcasing Lincoln’s Legacy

History, On the Road, Traditions
on October 7, 2007

A visit to the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., where the 16th U.S. president practiced law before entering political life, isn’t just a look back in time, it’s a journey into the action. Interactive Civil War displays, electronic maps, realistic figures of the Lincoln family and ghostly, holographic characters from the past dramatically provide entertainment and education, delivering both with a dose of enchantment.

The facility “is now the logical starting point of any Lincoln trip,” says Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which plans events to mark Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009.

While the library, which was moved into the spacious new facility from its previously cramped quarters beneath the state Capitol, houses priceless documents that Lincoln wrote himself, the museum is a bigger draw for most tourists. The 40,000-square-foot complex—double the size of any other U.S. presidential museum—opened in 2005 and weds traditional scholarship with 21st-century showmanship in a way that makes Lincoln’s legacy come to life. So far, it’s a big hit—the museum welcomed its millionth visitor in December 2006—and is providing downtown Springfield with a boon to shop and restaurant owners.

“Instead of coming here for just one day to see Lincoln’s home and tomb, they now stay two or three days to go through the library and museum,” says Ernie Slottag, Springfield’s mayoral aide. Many visitors are awed by the numerous detailed exhibits in which life-size sculpted and costumed figures depict key scenes from Lincoln’s life and presidency, such as the courtship of Abe and his wife, Mary, the fatal illness of their son, Willie, or a slave sale witnessed by young Lincoln that helped shape his anti-slavery views.

“It’s surely one of the finest museums of its kind,” says Samuel Clifford, 82, a visitor from Evansville, Ind. “I spent more than three hours there and could easily have spent many more. A visitor comes away with a whole new perspective on Lincoln and the Civil War.”

In the museum’s theater, a real-life actor narrates stories from the Civil War while high-tech projections of Lincoln, wife Mary and soldiers move eerily across the stage.

But even as the new facility is renowned for its life-size dioramas and technologically advanced theater, it also prizes its historical artifacts, including a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s presidential briefcase and his personal shaving mirror.

“To me, the museum’s greatest contribution is the way it presents its treasure chest of original material—Lincoln’s shawl, his photo album, some of his great early writing and the doorplate from his home,” Holzer says. “I’ve seen the eyes of young people open wide at the museum’s technology, but reflect awe at the sight of what Lincoln touched.”

Madeline Morris of Springfield had just such a reaction in mind when she made a library donation of a cache of letters that Lincoln’s wife and son Robert wrote to Morris’ great-grandfather, O.M. Hatch, an Illinois secretary of state who helped the gangly frontier lawyer secure a presidential nomination. “Rather than continuing to be in some safety deposit box for generations, these letters needed to be where people could see them,” Morris says.

The letters are part of a special Mary Todd Lincoln exhibit that also includes the black velvet cape Mrs. Lincoln wore on April 14, 1865—the day her husband was shot—and the fan she carried to Ford’s Theatre that night.

“We think the museum presents America’s greatest president to an audience in a way that is going to leave them with some very important messages about leadership, and about one man’s ability to grow and assume an importance and educate himself,” director Rick Beard says. “When you recognize where Lincoln came from—the wilderness of Kentucky—and where he wound up, his story is so inspirational as to be nothing short of phenomenal.”