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Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:01 am

Lincoln museum is a showstopper

Now in a new space with new exhibits, the Lincoln Heritage Museum opens April 26

The Lincoln Heritage Museum offers visitors a state-of-the-art, immersive experience of Lincoln’s life.


I worked part-time at the Lincoln Heritage Museum in Lincoln 10 years ago, back when it was called the Lincoln College Museum. In those days, the museum was quaint, almost anachronistic. Tucked away in a small room outside the college library, old-fashioned display cases held objects identified by typewritten labels. A time traveler from the days of the Hoover administration would have felt right at home there.

The objects themselves were stunning. Lincoln College was the beneficiary of several rare and highly significant objects from the estate of Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant, as well as donations from noted Lincoln collectors Lawrence Stringer, James Hickey and Ralph Newman. Visitors who sought out this small gem of an institution were treated to the sight of such treasures as locks of the Lincoln family’s hair, Tad Lincoln’s rocking chair, Mary Lincoln’s book of poems, an 1860 campaign banner and several documents written in Lincoln’s hand.

To my eyes, fresh from my graduate program in museum studies, the place seemed ripe with potential. With a collection like that, the museum could be a showstopper with the proper investment of time, effort and money to bring its stories to life.

Fast forward to 2014. One and a half million dollars and several years of diligent work have been invested in the museum, which now occupies 9,000 square feet over two floors in the newly opened Lincoln Center. The result is that the Lincoln Heritage Museum truly has become a showstopper. Utilizing state-of-the-art technology, it leads visitors on an immersive experience of Lincoln’s life beyond anything I could have conceived of even 10 short years ago.

The first floor contains many of the same Lincoln artifacts that took my breath away a decade ago, only now their stories really have been brought to life by eye-catching cases, vivid interpretation and relevant contextual imagery. Each exhibit uses documents and artifacts not just to explain an instance in Lincoln’s life but to highlight an element of his character.

The only criticism I have of these displays is that there are not more of them. Cluttered and antiquated as they may have been, the old display cases at least managed to get the bulk of the “good stuff” before the viewing public. In this new incarnation, dozens of fascinating objects are left in storage while their few lucky counterparts soak up their moment in the sun. However, museum director Ron Keller did assure me that the museum was built with the capacity to rotate objects and exhibits on its first floor. Plans are currently in the works for an exhibit on the Lincoln assassination, which will debut in conjunction with the sesquicentennial anniversary in 2015.

The most innovative aspect of the museum is found on the second floor. “If the downstairs is cool, the second floor is awesome,” said Keller.

Visitors to the second floor are shown into a small room where they gaze at an image of the Lincolns at Ford’s Theater. The image dissolves, and suddenly you are seated behind the Lincolns, watching as the assassination takes place. Lincoln slumps forward, Mary screams, Booth tussles with Henry Rathbone before leaping away. A scene of Lincoln’s deathbed appears, a clock begins to tick, and a voice intones that, in the nine hours following the attack, Lincoln hovered in a twilight zone between life and death.

What follows is an interpretive experience that is arguably more cutting-edge even than the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum here in Springfield. While the ALPM’s use of technology is masterful, ultimately the viewer is still at arm’s length, observing life as it unfolds for the latex Lincolns scattered throughout. On the second floor of the Lincoln Heritage Museum, visitors are invited to become Lincoln as he undergoes a life review in the hours before he succumbs to Booth’s bullet.

Moving through the scenes of Lincoln’s life, from his early years to his time in New Salem to his law practice, political career, and family life in Springfield, and ultimately to the White House, visitors are invited to touch the objects scattered along the way, each one representing a facet of Lincoln’s life experience. Doing so activates an audio and occasionally video narrative drawn from Lincoln’s own words and the words of those who knew him.

“We want you to see, touch and feel history, to really get with the history,” Keller said.

The experience is not without its flaws. Many of the objects don’t feel real. Some vignettes have a cartoonish quality. Some of the audio interpretation goes on a little too long. Yet these complaints are minor in the face of the ambitious goal the Lincoln Heritage Museum has achieved: a truly immersive experience into the 19th-century life of Abraham Lincoln using 21st-century technology. Ultimately, words do not do this museum justice. It must be experienced firsthand.

The Lincoln Heritage Museum will open to the public on April 26. Thereafter it will be open Monday-Friday from 9 am to 5 pm and Saturdays from 1-4 pm. Admission is $5 adults; $3 children. Visitors should allow two hours for the museum experience.

Erika Holst is Curator of Collections at the Springfield Art Association. She worked part-time at the Lincoln College Museum from 2003-2004.

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