I lost count of how many times I thought, “Wow, I had no idea….”
When friends said that I’d need at least two hours in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I thought that was pretty generous. I read through plaques and such pretty quickly – would it really take that much time to absorb the story of this legendary U.S. President? After all, I’d already learned a lot from touring the Lincoln Home nearby.
I’m here to tell you that two hours is a speed-walk through this facility; spend even more time there if you can!
Here are a few insights and recommendations:
1) Do not miss the two productions in the museum theaters – an excellent show called “Ghosts of the Library“ explains why we should care about “boring old history,” complete with holographic ghosts interacting with a live narrator, and a sweeping discussion of Lincoln’s life and key events of his Presidency in the Union Theater’s “Lincoln’s Eyes.” The narrator in the latter is a projected holograph, but somehow it doesn’t seem as hokey as you’d expect. The two productions gave me a true sense of Lincoln’s personality and perspective.
2) The section of the museum devoted to Lincoln’s early, pre-Presidential years was jam-packed with stories and anecdotes of his log cabin beginnings, early life and efforts to find work that suited him (spoiler alert – running a grocery store did not work out well,) courting Mary Todd, raising some quite rowdy boys and a nicely-done explanation of the 1860 campaign shown through televised “coverage” from journalist Tim Russert.
I ended up spending so much time here, I had to whiz through the White House section.
3) Similar to what you learn when you read about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was jarring to see how much Lincoln was vilified and hated in his day. Museum visitors walk through the “Whispering Gallery,” a display of leaning, jumbled, crookedly-displayed political cartoons and editorials (the off-kilter frames accentuate the sense of disorder) excoriating Lincoln for his policies, legislation, looks, wife, political platform…you name it. Lincoln was no hero to them.
It’s hard not to think of more recent Presidents who are vilified with the most foul language and insinuations. How will history judge both the shouters and the President?
4) Mary Todd Lincoln was a complex, intelligent, quite interesting woman whose own son later had her declared insane. I know nothing about her and now I want to learn, so I’ll be hunting down some of the books on the Museum’s suggested reading list for Lincoln and his era.
5) So much tragedy. Abraham and Mary lost not one, not two, but three of their four sons, had to deal with the weight of the Civil War and then while enjoying a rare night together at the theater, Lincoln was shot in the head at point-blank range with Mary right next to him. How could anyone bear such pain?
5) The Civil War in 4 minutes is a graphic display of major battles and events of the War. The ebb and flow of borders and invasions and front lines are displayed on a big digital map, moving and changing according to the timeline of the War, and all the while in the lower right-hand corner a casualties ticker shows the number of dead, wounded and missing going up, up, up. It is mesmerizing in a horrible way.
A final suggestion – there is a Subway sandwich shop inside the Museum, but unless you really like Subway, walk a block away on the Old Capitol square to locally-owned The Feed Store, which has delicious homemade soups and sandwiches. They’re only open Mon-Fri for lunch, but it’s worth it to try to get a meal there.
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