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Thursday, April 14, 2005 05:00 pm

Finally

art1979
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP

Some 25 years after the idea was first hatched to honor Abraham Lincoln with his own presidential museum, folks will finally get a chance to see what all the fuss has been about.

The doors swing open to the public on Saturday in advance of a big dedication ceremony that many hope will bring President George W. Bush to Springfield — although at press time officials still wouldn’t confirm that he plans to attend.

For the past few months, select groups of dignitaries, supporters, and media have been allowed a sneak peek into the museum’s exhibits, which include a pair of high-tech theater attractions that have already stirred some controversy.

“Lincoln’s Eyes” offers a three-screen presentation with seats that shake during battle scenes and smoke rings that blow into the audience to coincide with cannon blasts.

“Ghosts of the Library” presents a live actor who is thrilled by the prospect of unlocking history’s secrets. The performance, which features Holavision special-effects technology, includes apparitions of historical figures.

Other exhibits include “The Whispering Gallery,” whose walls are covered in political cartoons that attacked Lincoln during his first months in office, and a contemporary portrayal of the four-candidate 1860 presidential campaign hosted by Meet the Press’ Tim Russert.

The museum also features replicas of Lincoln’s boyhood cabin and the White House, plus dramatic re-creations of a slave auction and the president’s assassination and funeral.

The intent, says museum director and noted historian Richard Norton Smith, has been to “blend scholarship and showmanship” in a way that sparks renewed interest in history.

But the museum has already garnered its share of criticism from purists who say that its heavy reliance on technical wizardry and replications rather than actual artifacts detracts from the experience.

The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, recently took a swipe at the building that houses the museum — which was designed by Gyo Obata of St. Louis-based Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum. Kamin called the building an “astonishingly banal shell” that “deadens everything around it.”

Critics such as Kamin suggest that the new museum has “Disneyfied” Lincoln. The chairman of California-based BRC Imagination Arts, which oversaw the museum’s installations, once worked for Walt Disney Imagineering.

But the museum does showcase some authentic gems, such as an original copy of the Gettysburg Address and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Also on temporary display for the opening are the carriage that Lincoln and wife Mary Todd rode in on the night the president was assassinated and the bed in which he died.

Those seeking to pore over archives may walk across the street to the presidential library, which opened last fall and boasts a collection of some 47,000 Lincoln items.

The museum opening has already generated much national publicity, with articles appearing in the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, and the Washington Post.

Tourism officials are counting on the mix of a high local turnout and an influx of sightseers from across the state and the country to draw as many as 20,000 visitors a day downtown for the four-day public celebration. More than half of Springfield’s hotel rooms were reserved as of early this week, says Tim Farley, executive director of Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Might those visitors include Bush? Or past presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, or Gerald Ford? Museum officials aren’t saying.

They’ve kept a tight lid on which national and foreign leaders were personally invited and which have committed to attending the dedication.

“We’re not focusing on celebrities,” says Susan Mogerman, the museum foundation’s chief operating officer.

“The celebrity here is the museum itself.”

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