The Illinois that Lincoln knew
Illinois State Museum exhibit shows the growth of a state and a future president
Abraham Lincoln surrounds visitors to and residents of central Illinois. The Lincoln image the region presents and sells to the world, however, is often a caricature. Tourists may encounter Lincoln lookalikes, visit Lincoln sites and buy Lincoln souvenirs without ever contemplating his motivations or the impact that his contemporaries and his surroundings may have had upon his life.
As this year’s Lincoln Bicentennial approached, the Illinois State Museum pondered how to
best contribute to the festivities. Angela Goebel-Bain, assistant curator of
decorative arts, says that the museum’s goal was to contextualize a man who is too frequently presented without much
regard to perspective or environment. “We wanted to add to the national Lincoln conversation by presenting the Illinois
that Lincoln knew,” she says. “Everyone else is looking at his life and who he was, but we wanted to look
instead at his natural and cultural landscape in order to provide background
Goebel-Bain served as curator for the museum’s Lincoln exhibit, which opened in February. From Humble Beginnings: Lincoln’s Illinois, 1830-1861, tells the story both of a state and a future president undergoing significant
growth over the same 31 years. “Lincoln was one Illinoisan among many pursuing a better life, and we’re taking a look at how the state progressed alongside him,” Goebel-Bain says.
Visitors will learn firsthand about the state’s transformation from fledgling prairie to booming agricultural center. The growth, the exhibit teaches, resulted mainly from railroad development and the land craze of the late 1830s. “I think people will discover a lot about our state and its most famous resident. Most people assume that Chicago was the center, but people came from the south via the rivers and moved north,” explains Goebel-Bain.
The collection boasts many artifacts gathered over an 18-month process, including an 1855 John Deere plow and the first commercially successful mechanical corn planter, which enabled Illinois farmers to plant and cultivate larger plots of land. Humble Beginnings doesn’t shy way from the uglier parts of the region’s history, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the ensuing Trail of Tears and Trail of Death, by which Indian land was transferred to the United States.
As one stands to look at the corresponding trail maps, the museum’s Peoples of the Past exhibit, which features life-sized statues of Illinois Native Americans, can be
seen in the background.
Many displays include a placard describing Lincoln’s connection to the person or event on display. Included are the stories of
Jameson Jenkins, a mixed-race underground railroad guide who took Lincoln to
the train depot in 1861, Peter Cartwright, a Methodist minister and political
opponent who traveled a circuit similar to Lincoln’s, and “Free” Frank McWorter, a slave who bought his freedom before founding the town of New
Philadelphia. “It was the first town in the country legally established by an African American,
and it’s 100 miles from Springfield,” says Goebel-Bain, adding that the exhibit is the first to show objects
recovered from the settlement’s early years. “Free Frank came here the same year as Lincoln. Both were originally from
Kentucky, and although their lives were very different, both men were
struggling with the same things,” she says.
When Abraham Lincoln crossed into its borders in 1830, Illinois was a rugged frontier state. As he left for Washington, D.C., in 1861, the population topped 1.7 million, and Illinois ranked among the most populous and productive states in the nation. From Humble Beginnings tells the remarkable story of a president and a state both in the midst of profound change.
The Illinois State Museum has placed the Lincoln collection on the second floor, and the nearby At Home in the Heartland display is a fitting companion. Items featured recount Illinois’ progress from pioneer to modern life in a fun and interactive format.
For local residents who haven’t visited the museum in several years, the impressive renovations and new exhibits are worth the trip. The ground floor’s Changes exhibit, which opened in 2004, offers innovative and amusing displays that help visitors walk through the changing history of Illinois’ landscape. Kids always seem to enjoy the hands-on Place for Discovery (which will be replaced by a new play museum next year), and the staff and volunteers pleasantly display a wealth of knowledge and warmth.
On March 24, the museum was one of two facilities in the state accredited by the American Associations of Museums. The accreditation, which is bestowed only upon a small number of U.S. museums, certifies that a program is meeting or exceeding national standards and following best practices in all aspects of its operation.
Although donations are encouraged, From Humble Beginnings is free and runs until January of 2010. The museum is located on the corner of Spring and Edwards streets in Springfield, and can be reached at (217) 782-7386, or via http://www.museum.state.il.us.
Zach Baliva is a filmmaker currently living
in Springfield. You can keep up to date with his
current project at http://mynameisjerry.com.