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Thursday, April 14, 2005 03:19 pm

Whack job


If you feel like we’ve been bashed with a load of lumber, it’s not your imagination. It’s true. It happened on Sunday, when the mighty Chicago Tribune published a feature-length review describing our new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum as a “flop.”

The writer, Blair Kamin, is a Pulitzer Prize winner who prides himself on being an “activist critic.” In the introduction to his 2001 book Why Architecture Matters (a collection of his essays previously published in the Trib), Kamin takes on the responsibility of protecting the good citizens of Chicago from bad buildings, writing that, as an activist critic, “You whack at the offending party with the journalistic equivalent of a two-by-four.”

He landed several stinging swats on Springfield’s new jewel, calling it a “mawkish indoor theme park” with “astonishingly banal” architecture and a “disappointingly unadventurous” interior design. He smacked the exhibits, too, deriding some as “old-fashioned dioramas” and scolding the designers, BRC Imagination Arts, for making the theater presentations so flashy that they might upstage the authentic artifacts.

Worse yet, Kamin called the museum “very Disneyfied.” To most of us mere mortals, that might sound like a compliment. Coming from Kamin, though, it’s anything but. “That something should be ‘Disneyfied’ is the most horrible fate of all,” according to a scholarly cultural-criticism journal called The New Criterion¬†in its review of Kamin’s book.

I should admit: As a journalist, I’ve never been a fan of the art of criticism. It’s probably the one newspaper job I’ve never wanted. I’ve seen it seduce even really smart people into becoming so full of themselves that they end up saying something stupid — in print, preserved for all posterity. I’m not even certain that an architecture critic has the right to condemn museum exhibits just because they’re located inside a new and important building. If the building housed an art gallery, could the architecture critic analyze the paintings? If it housed a restaurant, could he parse the spices in the artichokes barigoule? If it housed a concert hall, could he dissect the conductor’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles? I’m just asking. I don’t know.

I asked museum executive director Richard Norton Smith whether there exists a species of critic whose job is to review museum exhibits. He said, sure, it’s everybody.

“We’ve had close to 9,000 people come through already, and probably 3,000 of those were schoolkids,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many schoolteachers have come up to me and said, ‘Where have you been all of my life?’ ”

I know that the sixth-grader in my house — a child so permanently tethered to his Nintendo appliance that it might as well be a pacemaker — came home from his tour saying that the museum totally rocks.

As for me, the last kid on my block to see the museum, I kept all of Kamin’s comments fresh in my mind as I took my tour Tuesday afternoon. I got to see a few things that weren’t there when Kamin came, such as Lincoln’s deathbed, so common and small that the president had to lie diagonally across it as he waited to die.

I strolled through the other exhibits, pretending to be a critic, actively looking for problems to nitpick. I dredged up two: There were a couple of spots where I could hear too many audio tracks simultaneously, a phenomenon I find somewhat irritating. And there were moments when I found myself so deep into a “journey” that I wondered whether I could have found my way out if I had needed to escape with, for example, my unruly toddler.

But even without trying, I found many moments that engulfed, enlightened, and enchanted me. I found myself not only learning but also wanting to learn more.

I kept waiting to feel the kind of disdain that Kamin expressed, and that feeling never came. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to be offended by rubber mannequins if they’re teaching me something I didn’t already know.

Kamin criticized the exhibits as “better at provoking emotion than provoking thought.” And it’s true — the exhibits tug at the heartstrings. But there’s also an abundance of factual background presented with every item in the museum, if you choose to take the time to absorb it.

Leaving the museum, I couldn’t help but think of a little ditty Mary Poppins sang while dosing her charges with cough syrup. Ostensibly about swallowing a nasty elixir, the song is really a metaphor for all sorts of healthful pursuits. You know it; it’s about how a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Kamin, though, must’ve missed it. After all, it is in a Disney movie.

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