Invading Lincoln’s Space

Times Staff Writer

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opens today with a silicone Lincoln posing in the rotunda and pundit Tim Russert introducing mock TV attack ads from the campaign of 1860.

In the Union Theater, an abolitionist roars “Lincoln was no friend of the black man” as hologram cannons boom to signal the start of the Civil War. Strobe lights flash; the plush seats jerk and rumble like a ride at Universal Studios. When Atlanta burns, the air feels hot.

This is history, Hollywood style: A $90-million look at Honest Abe’s life and times -- with special effects created by Stan Winston Studios, the wizards behind Jurassic Park and Terminator 3.


Some call it the model of a 21st century museum. Others call it schlock.

“Abraham Lincoln is treated like Paul Bunyan or Betty Crocker, like a commercial hoax, a do-good invention of the Springfield Tourism Bureau,” said John Y. Simon, a historian at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “They don’t need to shake your seat to scare you about the Civil War.” Ronald Rietveld, a Lincoln scholar at Cal State Fullerton, countered: “To attract today’s generation, glass boxes and yellow labels may not be enough.”

The museum’s collection of artifacts includes so many treasures that a few glass display cases were inevitable. But the 50,000 square feet of gallery space is mostly given over to more showy exhibits.

Visitors walk through 12 life-size theatrical sets, some with soundtracks, that trace Lincoln’s life from the dim, cramped cabin of his boyhood to the splendor and sorrow of his White House years. Two multimedia shows explore the president’s legacy with a striking blend of historic photos, ghostly holograms and an actor. A four-minute animated graphic captures the Civil War’s shifting frontline -- and mounting body count.

And in the “Illusion Corridor,” visitors walk past holograms of disembodied faces, each of them shouting an angry, often racist, opinion about slavery, Lincoln or the war. The historians who advised the museum’s designers were adamant that the language be full of fury, even at the risk of offending visitors. “We needed to put Lincoln in his own time,” Rietveld said.

Honoring a president who’s been dead 140 years gave exhibit designers a certain amount of freedom.

There were no relatives to object that it was unseemly to portray the future president sprawled across a couch, his suit rumpled and his hair a mess, as he courted the prim (and disapproving) Mary Todd. There were no White House loyalists around to protest an exhibit suggesting that Lincoln may have freed the slaves more to weaken the South than to advance the cause of human liberty.

Museum mastermind Bob Rogers, chairman of BRC Imagination Arts in Burbank, said his goal was to “knock Lincoln off his pedestal” -- to make visitors see him as a man, not a myth. So these exhibits acknowledge their hero’s flaws more directly than most presidential museums dare.

The first placard visitors encounter describes Lincoln as “a teller of vulgar stories” and “a negligent spouse” as well as a courageous leader. Another gallery displays newspaper articles from the 1860s; nearly all of them damn Lincoln, calling him a “perjured traitor” “vain, weak, sterile” and “an awful, woeful ass.” The catty women of Washington high society whisper -- through piped-in voices -- about Mary Todd Lincoln’s scandalous dresses, so low-cut they reveal her “milking apparatus.”

“When you walk through these galleries, you are Lincoln. You are seeing the world through his eyes,” Rogers said.

Though renowned the world over for his oratory, Lincoln remains silent throughout these galleries, as befits a “hero of the screen,” Rogers said. “Think of a great Clint Eastwood character.”

Placards and wall text explain Lincoln’s views on issues such as slavery and the limits of presidential power. But the stage sets are so riveting, it’s easy to overlook the words.

Rogers doesn’t mind. He built his reputation creating attractions for theme parks, including Disney’s Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm. Lately, he’s done more work for museums. But he’s stuck to his mantras: “Visual before verbal. Emotional before intellectual.”

He doesn’t believe that much text is needed in a stage set like the one that replicates Lincoln’s vigil by his son Willie’s deathbed in the White House. Or the one that re-creates the old Illinois Capitol rotunda where Lincoln’s body lay in state; it’s so realistic, visitors who walk through invariably lower their voices to a reverential whisper.

“Walk into a scene,” Rogers promised, “and it’ll grab you by the heart.”

That’s exactly what state officials hoped for when they selected BRC over five more traditional bidders. A separate presidential library, which opened last year, serves as a sober archive for 12 million Lincoln-related items, including his handwritten second inaugural address. Officials wanted the museum -- which, like the library, is funded mostly by the state -- to be bolder and more fun.

“We have the most remarkable life story in all of American history to tell. We knew the average way of doing museums would fall short,” said Julie Cellini, chairwoman of the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency board of trustees.

The exhibits do include dozens of genuine artifacts, including Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, his handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, and a clock his boys dismantled to see what was inside. But they’re not the main focus. There’s no curator here, just a “producer of the visitor experience.”

“Calling it a museum is really a misnomer,” Cellini said. “It’s a personal encounter with Abraham Lincoln.”

The encounter starts in the woods, in young Lincoln’s log cabin -- fashioned with such attention to detail that the fake leaves above the fake chimney are brown, as though singed by smoke. Walk inside, and you’ll see a strikingly realistic silicone-and-fiberglass model of young Abe reading by the firelight as his mother snores from her bed.

Forty-seven such models -- many of Lincoln at various ages -- populate the stage sets. Scholars vetted each of them down to the tiniest detail, dictating even the amount of hair on the back of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas’ hands and the cheap texture of the toupee on Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.

To make sure they got the Lincoln models right, BRC artists pored over hundreds of photos and mapped the president’s face from every angle, noting every crag and crinkle. (“Nostril is short and shows very little in profile.... Eye bags subtle and very low relief yet bulge and gather at the first hint of a smile.”) They even used police forensic techniques to sketch what Lincoln may have looked like as a boy.

Authenticity, however, does have its limits when the subject has been dead for more than a century -- as state historian Tom Schwartz found out when craftsmen working on a Lincoln model asked him the color of the president’s eyes.

“Gray,” he told them confidently.

“They pulled out a dozen glass eyes and said ‘Which is it?’” Schwartz recalled. “It was the same with the skin: There were six different tones of ‘swarthy.’ ”

Schwartz took his best guess.

Even when the historical record is unambiguous, the museum sometimes improvises. John Wilkes Booth famously declared “sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “thus always to tyrants”) after assassinating Lincoln. That sounded too arcane for modern ears. So in one of the multimedia presentations, the script writers have Booth growling instead: “Vengeance shall be mine.”

The goal is to make Lincoln’s story accessible so both adults and children “feel the fascination of history down in their gut,” Rogers explained.

He doesn’t want the museum to teach all there is to know about the nation’s 16th president. He wants the $7.50 tour to spark visitors’ interest -- and inspire them to browse the gift shop to learn more.

That approach troubles some Lincoln experts, including historian Richard Norton Smith, who agreed in 2003 to serve as the museum’s director. He had rejected the job once, out of concern that then-Gov. George Ryan was not managing the project well. When a new governor took office, Smith reconsidered. But he signed on too late to have much influence on the exhibit design.

“The intellectual drama of Lincoln’s story, I felt, may be missing,” he said.

To fill that void, Smith posted additional explanatory text in 20 spots throughout the museum. He also hired an actor to stand in the cabinet room in period costume, answering questions about the administration.

Finally, Smith insisted the museum expand its temporary exhibit space, which will feature rotating displays of artifacts and “a huge amount of wall text,” he said. The opening show deals with Lincoln’s assassination and includes the bed on which the president died.

“You don’t ever want to underestimate your visitors,” Smith said. “Even in an age saturated with video, nothing compares with the real thing.”

Despite his concerns, Smith said he considered much of BRC’s work pure genius that would make history come alive. For instance, he loves how the museum explains the four-way presidential contest of 1860 with a 10-minute newscast anchored by Russert. (There’s even a CNN-style news crawl along the bottom of the screen: “Pony Express delivers mail from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif. in 10 days!”)

“The idea rubs some people the wrong way,” Smith said. “But I guarantee, you’ll walk of out there knowing more about the election of 1860 than you did before. That’s the acid test.”

Since so much in the museum is staged, BRC is careful throughout to refer visitors to the many authentic Lincoln sites that still stand in Springfield and nearby towns. His home, law office and other historic buildings draw up to 500,000 visitors a year from the world over. Some wonder, however, whether the historic sites will still thrill tourists dazzled by the museum’s special effects.

“The general public is going to really like the museum,” said Susan Haake, curator of the Lincoln Home. “But when they come here, it will be completely different.” Warily, she said she worried that visitors would be disappointed in the hushed authenticity of the home. “We don’t know what we’re getting into with this museum.”

Bill Ulmer, a junior-high history teacher, sees how the museum might raise concerns. But he’s excited. Ulmer predicts that the drama of the stage sets and the seat-rattling movie will stick with his students.

“I read somewhere that this museum is either going to be the wave of the future, or they’re never going to make another one like it again,” Ulmer said. “I hope it’s the wave of the future.”