The museum at the brand-new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois is a fantastic place. It is the best museum I've ever visited.
Whether you're a child who knows nothing about our sixteenth President or a History Ph. D, you'll get a lot out of a visit to the museum, which opened earlier this year.
You enter the museum space via a large central atrium. Life-sized figures of the Lincoln family, as they appeared in the early White House years, meet you. Thousands of people have no doubt already had their pictures snapped next to Lincoln, wife Mary, and sons Robert, Willie, and Tad.
From here, visitors are likely to choose between two central display areas, referred to as Journey 1 and Journey 2. Journey 1 traces Lincoln's life from age twelve in Indiana through his election to the presidency. Stunning life-sized figures, including one showing the heart-wrenching separation of a slave family at auction, are interspersed with vivid portrayals of Lincoln's life and things going on in the country during this period. The conflict-ridden descent into Civil War, including a clever TV-news report on the four-way race for President in 1860, by Tim Russert, is accessibly portrayed.
In Journey 2, the visitor walks through the doors of the White House, with figures of Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Generals McClellan and Grant, and John Wilkes Booth close at hand. You pass through various scenes from the Lincoln presidency: the first Inaugual Ball, the villification of Lincoln by cartoonists and writers from every conceivable point of view, the Cabinet meeting at which--to stunned silence--the President read his Emancipation Proclamation, an amazing and informative four-minute visualization of the Civil War, the death of son Willie and its horrible aftermath, and a visit to the House chambers of the old Illinois State House where Lincoln's body lay in repose, complete with a replica of his casket. In this latter spot, I noticed that even though we weren't actually filing past the President's body, a genuine hush fell over young and old alike. This reaction was akin to the respectful silence people observed when, later in the day, we walked past Lincoln's marker at the Springfield cemetery where he's buried. The Lincoln museum manages to sweep people, young and old, into some tangible experience of Lincoln's life and legacy.
Two theaters present two multimedia films at the museum. One, called Ghosts in the Library, shows how historical archives grant us better understanding of the past and so, of our present. The other film, Lincoln's Eyes, is simply stunning. Both theaters have been created by subcontractors who have worked with the Disney people for projects like Muppet 3-D Theater and their presentation of American history through the narration of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. These films are easily the match of anything presented at Walt Disney World.
Yet nothing has been "dumbed down" here, a tribute no doubt to the leadership of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum's director, the eminent historian and veteran presidential librarian, Richard Norton Smith. Smith, if I recall correctly, has done stints at the Ford, Reagan, and Nixon libraries. He is also the author of my favorite biography of George Washington, Patriarch.
Including lunch at the museum, which was very good and featured a reasonably healthful menu, my wife, mother-in-law, and I spent four-and-a-half hours at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. If you're a parent or grandparent of any child above six years old, plan on taking a trip there soon. Both you and they will love it!